Celebrating Dogma

Alexandria– Last week, Alexandria became the site for screenings of the cinematic experiences of Dogma, a filmic wave that arose in 1995 as an alternative to the ills of contemporary filmmaking.

Dogma, an initiative propagated by Danish directors Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, was first announced by the former at an event celebrating the 100th anniversary of cinema in Paris’ Odéon Theatre in 1995. While throwing red fliers carrying his message later referred to as the Dogma Manifesto, Von Trier revealed his proposition to the audience, dubbing it a "rescue action" to combat the predictability, superficiality and the technical cosmetics of Hollywood-centric and Hollywood-inspired productions.

The last 15 years has seen various takes at Dogma. In the festival held at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, films were curated and screened chronologically, showcasing the evolution of the manifesto and highlighting the creativity of directors and the bare conditions of production.

Vinterberg’s "The Celebration" (1998) offered an opportunity for its actors to excel in their performances amidst the principles of Dogma, which relies upon an austere production process that is based only on the available, the “here” and the “now”. A family reunites in celebration of their father’s 60th birthday where they convene for a lengthy dinner that spans the length of the movie. During the dinner, one of the sons reveals that his celebrated father sexually assaulted him in the past. Later on, his sister reads a letter once written by her father’s twin sibling who committed suicide which also reveals her father’s sexual abuse. The film invests in the dramatic politics of a well-off family that breaks down under pressure and whose celebration is simply a façade to the deceased. Based on the principles of Dogma, the hand-held camera plays a vital role in conveying the naturalism of the scene and in delivering the complexity of emotions involved through its frantic movement. An art-house hit, "The Celebration" won the Special Prize of the Jury at Cannes and the Best Foreign Film at the Los Angeles and New York Critics’ Awards.

"Mifune" (1999) is a film by Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, an established director who joined Von Trier and Vinterberg later on in their Dogma Manifesto and is the oldest director embracing the new school. "Mifune" comes across as a light-hearted production interwoven with Danish folk color, specifically through its countryside motifs; however, it remains faithful to the tenets of the movement. A young Copenhagen-based and recently married businessman is called to return to his family house in the countryside after his father dies and his mentally challenged brother is left alone. In the course of the film, we see his slow return to country life, away from the attractions of the urban metropolis. He strongly resists the move in the beginning, but eventually embraces the country life in the end. Again, "Mifune" brings out the talent of its protagonists, particularly Anders Berthelsen, who is praised for his ability to transform himself from film to film, and Jesper Asholt, whose representation of a mentally challenged man truthfully and wittingly relays the ambiguity of being abnormal in a world where normalcy is prescribed.

"Italian for Beginners" (2000), by Lone Scherfig, falls within the Dogma movement, yet edges closer to a commercial film, if nothing else, for its commercial success in Denmark and abroad. A group of individuals meets in an evening Italian language class to escape their loneliness and end up weaving intimate relations that take them out of their self-perceived failed lives. The stringent conditions of Dogma filmmaking (in a world where filmmaking is transformed by the tricks of the digital age) did not hide the floating romance of "Italian for Beginners" that is accentuated with the fine performance of its actors and actresses. Berthelsen, the playboy of "Mifune" has nicely transformed himself into a friendly and wise priest who comes to the aid of Anette Støvelbæk (Olympia) whose mother’s prenatal alcoholism made her professionally inapt.

"Truly Human" (2001), by Åke Sandgren has perhaps the most eloquent plot of all the films screened this week, a plot that uses fantasy to strike at the heart of reality. A young man walks through the wall of a building into the city in order to take a stab at being “truly human”. In the process, he is exposed to a society barely ready to accept difference and anomaly in a world run by the wheels of modernity. In his quest to become human, he is sexually abused, jailed, labeled a migrant and accused of pedophilia. In his first leading role, Nikolaj Lie Kaas uses his innocent looks to convince us that he approaches the world at its most basic level, as a young man. This brings to mind the playful question: is there any primordial knowledge of the world; and if there is, what is it that we know and what is it that we need to learn? "Truly Human" received various awards back home, such as the Best Screenplay Award at Torino and the Young Audience Award in Rouen.

Throughout these films and others, as time progresses, we notice the principles of Dogma have become integrated into the filmmaking processes. In other words, we cease to look at a film as a declaration of the Dogma doctrine, and rather perceive it instead as a narrative-focused production that is not obscured by exaggerated sets, lights, sounds and other big budget production techniques. What is left of Dogma today is unknown, but its inspiration as a reaction to the classic possibilities of production that relates to economies of scale remains at the heart of independent filmmaking attempts.

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