by Alex Elder
"Half the fun of these films are in the joy of encountering the unexpected"
With CPH:DOX festival now sadly over for the year, here’s our second and final installment of highlights from the enthralling and highly diverse slate of documentaries on offer.
A Man with a Camera (2021) dir. Guido Hendrikx
One of the bizarrest titles on the DOX slate, A Man with a Camera is an hour-long documentary shot, predominantly, on the doorsteps of ordinary individuals from the Dutch hinterlands. Guido Hendrikx’ subjects open their front doors and suddenly find themselves face-to-face with a mysterious, silent camera operator filming them. There were only two rules for Hendrikx when shooting this otherwise free-form film: the filmmaker was never allowed to communicate (verbally or nonverbally) with his subjects and once the front door was opened, the person being filmed must direct the encounter - deciding what happens during the filming and when it should come to an end.
A Man with a Camera‘s modest portrayal of humanity frequently shifts gears from apprehension as stand-offish neighbours threaten the camera man and demand answers to bursts of off-beat humour. The joy of viewing this film is in observing the surprising and disparate ways that people react to the bizarre situation they are thrown into by the mute cameraman. We see every response from rage to laughter, welcoming hospitality and even phone calls to the local authorities.
The most frequent response Guido’s camera receives is a simple desire for his subjects to understand: “What is the meaning of all this?” Tonally, this is the perfect question to have repeated throughout the film; half innocuous, half existential. As you hear the question, you can’t help but wonder why it is that, in our society, every action has to be explained by an explicitly defined meaning in order to make sense to others around us. When I watched this film, I found myself relating the subjects’ reactions to the camera to how I imagine early spectators of Duchamp’s Fountain might’ve reacted to such boundary-pushing artforms. I daren’t give any more away because half the fun of this film is in the joy of encountering the unexpected, which A Man with a Camera excels at.
Courtesy of Cineuropa
The Mushroom Speaks (2021) dir. Marion Neumann
Marion Neumann’s debut feature is an anthology of profiles and scientific practices operating in the fungal realm. Neumann casts her net quite wide in The Mushroom Speaks: beginning the documentary with the Matsutake mushroom, the first living thing to grow out of Japanse soil after nuclear devastation and now a culinary delicacy - more precious than gold.
Later on we get a digression through the world of psychedelic mushrooms and their potential therapeutic benefits for people suffering from depression. Embedded in amongst the interview clips from fungal farmers, mushroom scavengers & ecologists, we see dream-like close ups of mushrooms and poetic subtitles without a voice over, as if the fungi themselves are speaking to us in prose.
The film frequently highlights the acute links between mycology, the study of fungi, and our anthropocenic era. Mycorrhizal fungi, for example, attach themselves to a tree and initiate a codependent relationship where one being will not survive if the other perishes. This symbiosis could be seen as a pretty solid ecological metaphor for humanity’s relationship with fungi or even, on a smaller scale, a description of the dynamics of a romantic coupling. At one point Peter McCoy, a radical mycology activist, goes as far as stating that, as we initially evolved from fungi, human culture is itself a highly developed fungal microculture.
Some of the film’s most breath-taking visuals come in the form of macro shots which show the slow spread of a fungus’ root network, or mycelium, enveloping everything within its microscopic environment. These psychedelic scenes of roots fanning out to expand their infrastructure seem to visually rhyme with the lengthy shots Neumann adds of busy motor highways and a mesh of pedestrians walking in every direction. As I watched this masterful and meandering documentary, McCoy’s assertion that we are a species of fungi, however outlandish it might initially sound, only seemed to grow more and more valid, and spread like a mycelium in my head.
Eventually (2021) dir. Rikke Nørgaard
Another bold debut, Rikke Nørgaard’s Eventually is best described as a cathartic couples therapy session packaged up in a highly experimental film form. A young couple in a messy relationship sit down in a cinema and play each other reconstructed episodes from their romantic history, which they themselves have each directed from memory. The end result is a highly unique and beautiful film that sensitively deals with modern romance.
As well as the couple seeing the ‘finished product’ of the filmed scenarios, Malik and Laura also get a glimpse behind the scenes and view their partner (for lack of a better word) on set, giving directions. As they help to explain the context of the relationship to the actors in each episode, which range from their idyllic first meeting to bust-ups over herpes, Malik and Laura can often be seen getting physically upset as they watch appects of their four year relationship play out in front of them. As they press for more details on how best to play a scene, the actors, who are intentionally cast because they identify with the character they play, begin to take on a strange role akin to a counsellor, helping their director to work through the pain of their ambiguous relationship and comforting them during the scenes which are difficult to watch.
Some of the most interesting moments of Eventually come when we view the same scenario twice, from each of the couples’ points of view. In one scene, Laura turns up to a party with Malik’s friend group, which obviously irritates him. In Malik’s interpretation, the actor-couple play through a standoffish exchange he remembers from that night where Laura acts coldly towards him. In Laura’s version, her clearest memory is Malik saying goodbye to everyone at the party except her, then immediately sending her a text to disingenuously apologise for not saying bye. There truly are two sides to every story!
At the end of each reenactment, the house lights of the cinema turn on and the pair have some time to talk about what they’ve just viewed and explain how they feel after watching a scene. The duo’s bravery in sharing such intimate details is absolutely commendable - it’s unlike any other documentary I can think of, mainly for its sheer honesty and untapped access to the most personal aspects of its subjects’ love life.
As well as being an innovative retelling of Malik and Laura’s years spent on-and-off, Eventually also reminds us that, sadly, reality has far fewer moments of conclusive resolution than we see in the cinematic world. As you watch the reconstructed snapshots of their love life, you could easily be duped into thinking that Eventually is heading for a happy ending with the couple skipping off into the sunset. But documentaries are not rom-coms and, as we all know, things are never as simple as they might seem in the movies.
Alex Elder is a writer, DJ and 'content farmer' covering the venn-diagram of tech, art & cultural theory.