On our last day in Denmark, a few of us in the CPH:DOX American contingent stopped by Christiania, Copenhagen’s hippie paradise and self-proclaimed autonomous zone. In stark contrast to the cobblestones and slick Scandinavian design of the main city, Christiania is dirt paths and DIY housing, a neighborhood based around abandoned military barracks that were taken over by squatters in the early ’70s.
It was too early for much to be going on, but on the main drag the cannabis market that’s made the area a favorite for backpackers and a constant source of controversy was already open, with stalls displaying giant blocks of hash for sale, while a few nearby stands offered rasta wear. A dog trotted by, and a few dreadlocked Danes warmed their hands over a trashcan fire.
“Maybe it’s just me, but this all seems incredibly ‘Children of Men,'” I said.
Or maybe it was just that dystopia was on everyone’s mind, being a strong undercurrent in the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival program. These days, dark visions of the future and docs pretty much go hand in hand, since nonfiction film has become hopelessly entwined with social issues.
With one of the most progressive, boundary-pushing, eyebrow-raising lineups you’re going to find in a documentary festival, CPH:DOX actually actively strives to get away from the idea of docs as just journalism, or as just a means of galvanizing viewers toward activism — to promote, as the programmers stressed, “the documentary as cinema, and the documentary as art.” Which ultimately meant that doses of impending doom came not with a lecture, but with artful vision — these are, after all, unavoidably troubled times.
Take “Videocracy,” Erik Gandini’s brilliant jaw-dropper about the ties between Italian politics and Italian television that could hold its own with Matteo Garrone’s “Gomorrah” in a disturbing double feature depicting the country as careening towards “Blade Runner.” At its center is the elusive figure of Silvio Berlusconi, who’s both Italy’s Prime Minister and its major media mogul, and, in Gandini’s view, the man responsible for infecting the nation with a terminal fixation on boob tube celebrity.
That’s the kind of ambitious scope that usually defeats a project before it even begins, but “Videocracy” works astoundingly well because it’s styled as an essay, without the pretense of objectivity. Gandini narrates and makes a sort of stream-of-consciousness case for his conception of Italian today, luxuriating in a Lynchian score and hypnotic footage of glittering, never-quite-graspable talk and game shows, brightly lit sets, scantily clad dancing girls and applauding audiences — television as a sweeping sedative.
“Videocracy” hops between interview subjects, often favoring them with wordless still portraits in their chosen surroundings. There’s Rick Canelli, the singing martial artist who aspires to be a combination of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Ricky Martin, but who meanwhile is a factory worker who still lives with his mother. There’s Marella Giovannelli, the woman who lives next door to Berlusconi’s vacation villa on Sardinia, and who makes a living taking flattering photos of his party guests and making them available for purchase. There’s Lele Mora, the country’s most powerful agent, who never seems to leave his all-white house but who nevertheless manages to pull strings via cell phone — his ring tones are hymns to Mussolini, of whom he’s a proud fan.
And then there’s Fabrizio Corona, the mesmerizing/repugnant head of a paparazzo ring that sells incriminating photos back to the celebrities in them. Others might call this extortion, which is what Corona gets indicted for, but when he gets out of jail, he reinvents himself as an opportunistic, nihilistic truth-teller and vaults into the realm of celebrity he used to despise, guesting on talk shows, launching a t-shirt line and making a series of paid nightclub appearances. In “Videocracy”‘s money shot (though not its literal one, in which Corona lies in bed, surrounded by a pile of cash), he showers and then preens, nude, in front of the mirror, suiting up and soaking himself in cologne, dead-eyed and directly out of “American Psycho.” An unmentioned attendant is there in the bathroom with him the whole time, but then again, so is a camera crew. As “Videocracy” makes clear, in this world, shame is for the weak.
A more tangible type of forbidding future is on view in “Cities on Speed,” four hour-long docs from Danish filmmakers, each set in a different megacity, that had their premiere at CPH:DOX. Bogotá, Cairo, Mumbai, Shanghai: all face serious urban stresses as their populations explode — well, presumably so, in the case of Bogotá, as that was the one I didn’t get to see. The best of three I did catch was “Mumbai Disconnected,” an examination of attempts to remedy traffic problems in India’s largest city.