As CPH:DOX Wraps, Copenhagen Event Charts Future Course: To Be The World’s “Most Important Documentary Festival”

CPH:DOX, the international nonfiction film festival in Copenhagen, isn’t shy about stating its ambitions.

“The long-term goal is to be the most important documentary festival in the world,” says artistic director Niklas Engström.

The 20th edition of the festival, which wrapped on Sunday, saw considerable progress toward that objective, Engström tells Deadline.

“It really feels like this is the year where the festival is taking off as an industry event,” the artistic director observes. “It’s been going in that direction for years. It’s been building and building, but it’s like some kind of next level that we reached this year.”

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Evidence of that came with the number of documentary world premieres at the festival – more than 100 of them. 

“We have a competition 100 percent consisting of world premieres. And I think that’s the next level, coming from where we were the European launching pad for Sundance titles — and still are,” Engström comments. “But now we also get so many great films submitted that we can create a great competition program with only world premieres.”

Judging by one measure – the coterie of prominent documentary filmmakers who brought new work to CPH:DOX — the 20th festival must be considered a big success. A who’s who in the field assembled in Copenhagen, including many Oscar winners and nominees: Asif Kapadia, Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, Roger Ross Williams, Davis Guggenheim, Talal Derki, Maite Alberdi, Wim Wenders, as well as home-grown Danish talents like Academy Award-nominated producers Sigrid Dyekjær and Kirstine Barfod. Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, whose film Flee scored an unprecedented Oscar hat trick last year with nominations for Best Documentary Feature, Best International Film, and Best Animated Film, attended a dinner in honor of Alberdi, who earned her Oscar nomination two years ago for The Mole Agent.

Critical to the festival’s rise in importance has been the decision to move the event from November, its spot on the calendar for 15 years, to March, its current home. That got it out from the shadow of the biggest player in international documentary festivals – IDFA, the Amsterdam-based juggernaut that takes place in mid- to late-November.

“When we moved the festival dates in 2017 from autumn to spring, that really changed the dynamic very much,” Engström affirms, “because instead of being that ‘other’ crazy little sister festival in Europe next to IDFA, we became the big festival in Europe in spring. I think that really contributed to a lot of Americans seeing that the festival was a great launching pad for Sundance titles.”

Engström, who has been with CPH:DOX in various capacities from its very beginning, says the idea of moving the festival triggered an epic debate.

“We had a lot of discussions and I made a big sheet with all pros and cons and, and it was very difficult,” he recalls. “November, it’s dark, it’s a beautiful month for going to the cinemas, right? So, as an audience festival, we were like, is this going to be okay?”

There was a worry that in March Danes might prefer to be outside enjoying the longer stretches of daylight rather than hibernating in cinemas. But ultimately, the argument in favor of moving became too compelling. “It was a decision where we said, okay, if we want to grow this festival as an international industry event, then we need to make that move because we were literally the week before IDFA, and it just meant that we would never be able to outgrow them.”

The festival balances art and commerce through a market which runs concurrently with the festival and extends another 30 days afterwards, a chance for filmmakers to get their work sold and seen on a broader scale. “The Market is primarily targeted to international TV buyers, sales agents, festivals, curators, journalists and distribution companies,” CPH:DOX notes, with films from the festival’s five competition categories available through a screening platform.

Among other strands of the festival are CPH:Lab, a talent development program; CPH:Forum, where “top producers and highly acknowledged directors… pitch 30 carefully selected projects,” with the best pitch receiving a €20,000 development award, and the CPH:Conference of dialogues and talks, “the platform uniting bright and determined filmmakers, producers, and gatekeepers of the non-fiction world to collectively envision the future of our industry.”

Engström says CPH:DOX made a name for itself “because of our love of hybrid cinema, how we explored the boundaries of documentary and fiction. We were also very provoking sometimes in our choices.” He says as the festival grows it doesn’t intend to dull that edge.

“It’s about the way we think of the documentary genre as a very expansive field, a field that can be so many different things. What is then perhaps specific for CPH is that we can be super art-y, extremely art-y,” he says. “We screen the most artistic, strange, experimental films together with very, very pop films. We always strive to create an atmosphere where both of these very different spheres are part of the same sphere.”

CPH:DOX films that dispense with a typical narrative structure included The Last Year of Darkness, a portrait of disaffected young people in Chengdu, China who spend their nights dancing and drinking at the Funky Town nightclub, and Vintersaga, a film exploring Sweden’s ineffable melancholy, “an aesthetically uncompromising and unmistakably Nordic saga in 24 chapters with dark humor and a sociological gaze.”

Despite its growing size, CPH:DOX retains an intimacy that distinguishes it from many other big festivals that feel atomized. As it expands, Engström says CPH:DOX doesn’t want to lose its essential character.

“I think that’s the crossroads where we are now,” he says. “If you make a decision that you want to grow as a festival, how can you still keep the atmosphere and the spirit that has made it great? That’s something that’s super important to us and we really spend a lot of time discussing and after this year’s festival it will be one of the things that we keep discussing.”

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