by Alex Elder
"We’ve binge-streamed as many docs as possible to find the innovative films that will be making their way to UK cinemas in the near future"
A highlight of the documentary fanatic’s calendar, Denmark’s CPH:DOX festival kicked off late last month with a blend of virtual viewings, remote talks and even in person theatrical screenings for lucky Copenhageners. With over 100 films available to watch online, we’ve binge-streamed as many titles as possible in order to share some choice highlights and pointers of innovative docs that will be making their way to UK cinemas in the near future. Some of our favourites from last year’s festival, such as The Reason I Jump and I Walk on Water, became must-see films at the London Film Festival and the ICA’s Frames of Representation program. So here’s our first rundown of DOX titles you should keep an eye out for as cinemas finally open their doors again.
Crestone (2020) dir. Marnie Ellen Hertzler
Having loved American Rapstar, which I reviewed last year, I leapt at the chance to once again immerse myself in the strange world of SoundCloud rap via Hertzler’s first full length documentary, Crestone. The former was a glossy, talking heads format with access to musical giants and cultural commentators who waxed lyrical on the mumblerap revolution in an era of streaming numbers and IG Lives. Crestone really could not be further from this stylistically. It’s a woozy, semi-hallucinogenic portrait of a group of unknown rappers who drop out of society, preferring to live in a fairly shambolic commune in the Colorado desert.
Hertzler follows her old high school friends as they create music, give each other tattoos and attempt to make sense of their isolated existence lived out in abandoned shells of buildings and the excruciating heat of landlocked America. A Lord of the Flies tale with added cannabis, we watch the young men oscillate between childish goofing and dark grimaces as they attempt to survive in a food and water-scarce environment.
Despite their somewhat ‘off grid’ existence, social media is extremely pervasive for all members of the Crestone community. As Hertzler flashes up screen recordings from her subjects’ respective Insta feeds, you quickly get the sense that these curated internet personas are far more real and important to the rappers than the forest fire which looms on the horizon. As the camera captures piles of unwashed dishes and topless torsos dozing on old couches, Hertzler’s voiceover remarks, “If the world was ending, they probably wouldn’t even notice.”
Each musician has their own eccentricities but none more so than the group’s leader, ChamplooSloppy - a flat Earth agnostic who often roams around in medieval armour and has a penchant for belloni sandwiches, a staple of the group’s diet. Later on, the performative facade Sloppy has carefully constructed for his followers, and Hertzler’s camera, rapidly comes apart in front of us. This contrast between the ultra-composed figure, meticulously portraying an irreverent, happy-go-lucky character, and the later depiction of the same young man losing his shit about their grim slacker lifestyle, was such a U-turn in Sloppy’s demeanour that my jaw genuinely dropped when I saw this ‘unfiltered’ version of him.
Crestone is an unconventional depiction of a life spent isolated from society but, paradoxically, imbued within the digital culture of SoundCloud and Instagram. You can already stream it on Amazon Prime here.
Gabi, Between Ages 8 and 13 (2021) dir. Engeli Broberg
As the title might suggest, Broberg's film captures our protagonist over a half-decade from childhood to early adolescence and is potentially the most touching and important film of recent memory. This longitudinal study sensitively captures the formative years of someone trying to navigate school and family structures whilst attempting to understand their sexuality when none of the traditional gender labels seem to fit.
With an unprecedented level of access, we see amongst a wealth of life experiences, Gabi’s joyous sleepovers as well as sullen moments after a rough day at school. The use of cinematography; of a shallow depth of field and cameras positioned at Gabi’s eye level, really adds a sense of nuanced intimacy, which is amplified by the confessional interview clips sprinkled through the audio.
In filming so much of Gabi’s day-to-day existence, Broberg’s camera also picks up the family’s somewhat strained dynamic. Gabi’s father is estranged and she is reluctant to accept her stepfather as a paternal stand-in. Gabi also welcomes two baby brothers into the family during the 5 year timeframe, which has obvious impacts on her level of independence and how much attention her parents give her as she navigates pre-teen life and awaits apprehensively for the day when puberty hits.
One real positive that came out for me is the liberating effect that early-age computer literacy might offer younger generations struggling to explore or understand their sexual identity. Aged 8, Gabi makes herself a Sims avatar that is gendered male and has a seriously impressive six pack. When Gabi is 12, a video about gender reassignment surgery comes up on YouTube auto-play. We also often see Gabi use Google to fill in the gaps of knowledge adults don't tell you directly. Big Tech’s not all bad, right guys?
Viewing Gabi… is an emotional rollercoaster, jumping from optimistic displays of Gabi's steadfast resolve to be true to herself to absolutely heartbreaking scenes where Gabi is ignored by her peers at school or speaks of a crush that she had to keep a secret from everyone. If you don’t cry at the end of this film, you’re made of metal.
Canon Arm and the Arcade Quest (2021) dir. Mads Hedegaard
One of the strangest documentaries at CPH:DOX, Canon Arm and the Arcade Quest follows a legendary arcade game player, Kim ‘Cannon Arm’, as he attempts to play Gyruss for a record-breaking 100 hours. Like an oddball Rocky, Kim prepares for his gaming marathon by getting a full medical checkup, following a training regime and assessing the best gameplay strategy which will allow him to grab the odd 15 minutes of sleep and still be in the game.
‘Canon Arm’ Kim could not be further from your typical cinematic protagonist. Evoking a lot of the stereotypical tropes of a hardcore gamer, he’s an unassuming figure and someone who doesn’t use a lot of words. Hedegaard’s narration nicely fills in the gaps left from the interviews with Kim and his friends; the director elaborates on the complicated mechanics of Gyruss, gives us a potted history of arcade gaming and explains the groups’ Sisyphean struggles to keep these ancient machines alive.
Whilst it is Kim attempting to break the world record, it’s truly a team effort taken on by the whole community of Copenhagen’s Bip Bip Bar. His friends organise a shift pattern so they can support Kim, keep him fed with a constant supply of bananas and, crucially, track how many lives he has left in the game. His friends are a curious bunch with a surprising array of hobbies, professions and backgrounds. Kim’s best friend Carsten is a gaming newbie aiming for a ‘kill screen’ on Donkey Kong. He’s also an innovative music theorist, studying Bach scores and organising them into logical patterns or codes. Dyst has published six collections of his poetry and is often seen getting frustrated with Puzzle Bobble. His slam poetry is beautiful and near the end of the film we hear a tortured stanza about life as a 36 year old arcade gamer who’s only just moved out of his parents house.
A wonderfully strange film about Kim’s attempt at a near-impossible feat and the close friends that help him along the way - I strongly recommend you try and seek out Canon Arm and the Arcade Quest wherever you can.
Catch us next time as we continue to provide the top picks from the world's best documentary film festival
Alex Elder is a writer, DJ and 'content farmer' covering the venn-diagram of tech, art & cultural theory.