by Alex Elder
"If your brain hasn’t exploded by this point I’m not sure that anything will ever shock you."
CPH:DOX, the nerdy, less exploitative younger sibling of Cannes Film Festival, kicked off last week in a rather unorthodox fashion. The Danish film festival had to move quickly to embrace ‘the new normal’ we’re experiencing and have made an admirable attempt to recreate the cutting-edge documentary and arthouse film festival in virtual space.
Whilst we’re bummed we’re not there in the flesh, wolfing down Smørrebrød and endlessly cycling around like any good Copenhagener should, we’ve been rattling through the titles available online in order to give you our top picks from this year’s selection. Even though these films aren’t currently out in UK cinemas, cinephiles should take note as many of our favourites from last year, such as Normal, The Disappearance of my Mother and Midnight Family, have received limited UK releases in the months following 2019’s festival.
Perfect Black (2019) (dir. Tom Fröhlich)
Tom Fröhlich’s third feature-length documentary is a curious series of episodes tied loosely together by his six subjects’ relentless search to find true, optical black.
Crammed full of breath-taking black and white cinematography and coupled with an eerie soundtrack to match; ‘Perfect Black’ is far from a straight science documentary with Brian Cox banging on about black holes.
From the synesthete musician, who describes black as a “very deep hum” and shares her solitary experience and perception of the world, to the marine biologist who finds joy 800 kilometers below sea level where creatures emit their own source of light, each individual’s immense passion for their vocation leads to some enthralling insights.
Hearing a tattoo artist talk about the permanence of his craft and the melting away of any ego in those moments of intense pain is almost like listening to a poem. When asked what black means to him, the tattooist replies it “means honesty… There is no motif on a black arm anymore. I can only look at that black surface. What’s left is the core of a human”.
One of the best and most visually interesting films of recent memory within the talking heads structure, ‘Perfect Black’ is an all-out sensory assault and a must-watch for the big screen; (so try not to settle for home-streaming like we’ve had to).
A Year Forever (2020) (dir. Pauline Merrildgaard)
In stark contrast to the eerie monochrome imagery and philosophical debates of ‘Perfect Black’, Pauline Merrildgaard’s ‘A Year Forever’ is a heartfelt, visually dreamy film that follows a group of 16 year olds experiencing their first time away from home at boarding school.
It’s a brilliantly intimate portrait that documents the joys, fears and uncertainties we’ve all experienced when reaching the cross-roads that is adolescence. From existential questions about what happens after we die to more mundane tensions around acne breakouts and girl troubles, Merrildgaard’s debut captures these moments at close proximity, both physically and interpersonally, and stitches them together with an impressionistic flair. With so much close-up, hand-held camerawork, you feel like one of the gang; waiting for that sixth form acceptance letter to arrive or feeling the adrenaline rush when the group plays a gig at a small venue in Copenhagen.
The pressures of neoliberalism hang subtly in the film’s backdrop. Oskar, the ‘daydreamer’ of the group, actively does not want to work in later life and struggles to reconcile this with the expectations of a society characterised by the icebreaker, “So, what do you do for a living?”. Whatever your teenage years were like, it’s hard not to relate with at least one of the characters the director has intricately built through countless hours with this group of boys who are attempting to figure shit out.
American Rapstar (2020) (dir. Justin Staple)
A strange mix of glossy performance clips, dressing room shenanigans and astute insights from Popcast’s Jon Caramanica, ‘American Rapstar’ examines the sociological roots and issues surrounding ‘SoundCloud rap.’
Tracing its lineage from the DIY ethos of punk rock, to the musical watershed of Napster and the streaming and social media economy that followed, Staple’s film does an excellent job of explaining the combination of factors that aligned to birth the movement.
The unprecedented level of access to trap royalty is staggering, with the likes of Smokepurrp, Lil Xan & Lil Pump all featuring heavily throughout. Often, this makes for uncomfortable viewing as we know the outcome of giving mere children 7-figure record deals and a rockstar lifestyle. Scenes in Lil Pump’s dressing room where Matt Ox (aged 12) appears in a drug induced stupor and footage of some of Lil Peep’s final moments ripped from his Instagram, haunt this documentary.
‘American Rapstar’ also takes on the tricky task of covering XXXTentacion’s thoroughly documented criminal case but also the rabid fanbase he spoke to and inspired with unrelenting positivity. Despite the lack of an interview with him, there’s a commendable sensitivity with how he is documented. I went into this segment with a very low opinion of him, ready to roll my eyes at whatever filmic obituary might follow, but I came out seriously conflicted over this curious figure in musical history. He wraps up a show by blessing his audience, telling them that something good will happen to each of them and that, “No matter what happens, no matter what you face, no matter who you lose, you do not give up. Promise me that.”
The biggest shortfall of the film is its inclusion of Bhad Bhabie of “cash me outside” fame. The rapper reiterates she’s not a ‘SoundCloud rapper’ and looks down her nose at her peers; shading them for their face tattoos and drug use. She does make the odd pertinent point about fame or addiction but it’s hard to listen to a human meme taking the moral high ground.
Robolove (2020) (dir. Maria Arlamovsky)
Diving head-first into the AI uncanny valley, ‘Robolove’ is a brilliantly strange journey through the laboratories of roboticists like Hiroshi Ishiguro that also touches on the subject of surveillance, transhumanism and cyberfeminism.
Keen to move the conversation on from somewhat tired arguments we’re familiar with, (“one day AI robots will take over civilization and kill us all!”), Arlamovsky’s film calmly reflects on the impact that semi-scentient robots could have on everything from sex work, to elderly care and human self-conception.
There is no shortage of jaw-dropping, “what the actual fuck” moments of human / AI interaction in ‘Robolove’. There’s a scene where BINA48, (an AI made to resemble its creator’s wife in appearance, memory and mannerisms), has a conversation with the creator's son and recounts her ‘memories’ of him becoming a father and the pride she felt. Hiroshi Ishiguro and his android Geminoid, created to resemble himself, have an incredibly complex debate about which one of them ‘has it better’. Hiroshi argues that people are more interested in his android than himself, whilst Geminoid counters that people find his inability to age off putting. If your brain hasn’t exploded by this point I’m not sure that anything will ever shock you.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our roundup next week (including a new feature by Werner Herzog & a Sundance favourite!)
Alex is a writer, DJ and 'content farmer' covering the venn-diagram of tech, art & cultural theory. Catch his cynical rantings on Twitter