Climate protection, the growing threats to ocean life, the FBI’s smear campaign against Martin Luther King Jr. and the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi death squad are just some of the wide-ranging topics examined at this year’s Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX), which kicks off Wednesday.
Since its establishment in 2003, the fest has straddled the sectors of film, politics, art and science like few others.
Among this year’s highlights are Phie Ambo’s opening film “70/30,” an up-close look at the combined efforts to pass Denmark’s landmark climate law, and fellow Danish filmmaker Robin Petré’s “From the Wild Sea,” which follows a team of volunteers in northern Europe struggling to save animals suffering from human-made catastrophes, from oil-covered swans and stranded whales to starving seals with stomachs full of plastic.
Festival founder and CEO Tine Fischer, who is stepping down this year to head the National Film School of Denmark, says the main intention of the festival was to “enlarge the room dedicated to documentary film, so we really pushed it towards borders, towards fiction, towards contemporary art, towards activism, performance – basically just building a much larger house for what documentary is.”
It was an effort to work with films in a way that allowed them to “unfold their potential to also create social and political impact,” she adds.
“During those years we built a festival that stands on three very interconnected legs: art, science and political activism.”
That interconnected foundation runs through every part of the festival, from the curatorial profile of the program to industry activities, including the conferences and the selection of projects for the CPH:Forum financing and co-production event, Fischer says.
“It doesn’t mean that we are not very much dedicated to independent film and to very artistic approaches to documentary film, it just means that we believe that this house that has been built needs to be connected with the rest of the world and with other sectors.”
This year’s opening film, Ambo’s “70/30,” perfectly fits that bill. The film offers a chronicle of the often difficult and frustrating process of passing the ambitious climate legislation as seen through the eyes of young activists and political leaders alike. The festival is also working with the film’s producers and a number of climate protection organizations to screen the doc at special events.
CPH:DOX, which became the first major documentary fest to go online last year in the wake of the pandemic, is again taking place virtually, although a partially physical part is planned that will include theatrical screenings of some films.
Despite the great desire for a return to normalcy at the festival, some of the changes brought on by the COVID-19 crisis are here to stay, namely an expanded online presence that allows for greater international participation.
“What happened last year was basically a very fast decision not to let everything go down the drain,” Fischer says, noting that the country went into lockdown three days before the festival was to start. “But what we learned from that was that it made tremendous sense to actually create a festival that was not only based in a certain place and a certain time but that could actually be accessed throughout the country and for many of the activities also globally. I think that lesson was so valuable that for us there was never a question of whether the next festival would also be digital.”
It’s a move organizers have long sought but have found difficult to make due to rights issues and the festival’s close relationship to local theaters. Yet expanding CPH:DOX’s reach digitally is in line with its overall mission.
“It’s been really important for us to not only select and curate film programs but also to create a democratic conversational forum around the festival,” Fischer says.
The opportunity to take part in that forum should not be limited to only invited festival guests, however. “For many years we have been working on how to take the festival and take that democratic platform and voice within the festival to a much larger audience and we knew that a digital space would allow for that.”
Fischer notes that for last year’s screening of a film about artificial intelligence, Tonje Hessen Schei’s “iHuman,” the festival organized a live talk with Edward Snowden. Had it taken place during the physical festival, the discussion would have been viewed in a room by some 800 people.
“Because it went online, it ended up having 100,000 people participating. That talk was suddenly a global talk. … It just felt like, here was something that we could never let go of again.”
Fischer adds: “In a very short time we created a way of running the festival that was meaningful in terms of what we are actually striving for.”
CPH:DOX runs April 21 to May 12.