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CPHDOX 2023: Radical Art Review’s highlights from Europe’s leading documentary festival (Part 1)

By Alex Elder


Our resident content farmer & weirdo film fan, Alex Elder, went to CPH:DOX festival to binge-watch movies that should hopefully be making their way to a cinema near you later this year.

Having recovered from cramming 20 documentary viewings into a single week, here’s some slightly belated highlights from this year’s slate...

And the King Said, What a Fantastic Machine (dir. Axel Danielson, Maximilien Van Aertryck)

‘And the King Said, What a Fantastic Machine’ is the first full-length offering from director duo Axel Danielson & Max Van Aertryck and, honestly, it absolutely blew my socks off.

The film sketches a potted history of the moving image from early pioneers of cinema to the hyperreality of 24/7 news, Twitchstreamers and Taliban recruitment videos via an archive which took over a decade to amass.

Tonally, I'd pitch this film somewhere between John Wilson's eye for the funny quirks of human behaviour and Adam Curtis' topical approach to storytelling (and if that lovechild doesn't make you want to watch this film then I don't know what will!)

Over the course of its its snappy hour and a half duration, Danielson & Van Aertryck manage - somewhat miraculously - to make sense of their source material and pull pertinent, thematic needles out of this eclectic haystack of footage.

Organized almost like a spider's web, the film seems to fold outwards from the centre in an entropic fashion. Threaded through this complex patchwork are numerous parallels excavated between seemingly disparate events in the history of imagery.

For example, we see an Amazonian chief study the first photo of himself he has ever seen for 20 minutes shortly after the viewer is informed that some of the earliest film businesses operated by charging people to narcissistically view footage of themselves in ensemble shots filmed on the streets that day. The filmmakers deploy numerous visual 'rhymes' of this sort that the viewers have to hunt for as we career through history in a chaotic and non-linear fashion.

Even though "And the King Said…" is an essay film, it's not a feature that takes itself seriously all the time. Danielson & Van Aertryck set high & low brow culture in stark juxtaposition through highly bathetic sequencing. We see the triumphant moment of the first image ever captured by Nicéphore Niépce’s before rapidly cutting to a fever dream of vapid TikTok edits or spectating the side-splitting blunder where an interviewee for an accountancy job manages to bluff his way through a news segment on IP law on BBC News.

The duo’s chosen clips often do a good job of highlighting the artificial ‘skin’ of image making and the firm intentionality that goes into any capturing of footage - something many may easily mistake as ‘natural’ or ‘objective’.

When some kids pose for a school photo, a few have blurred faces as the directors obviously failed to secure image release agreements in time. Lurking camera people can be spotted in clips from TedTalks we see. Some of the best comedy comes from moments where the ‘naturalistic’ veil of image making is pierced. We see a behind-the-scenes clip from Eurovision where delegates from different countries are casting their votes on a live stream to the main studio. Except, these delegates aren't in different countries; they're all in the same room taking it in turns to stand in front of the greenscreen as the backdrop is changed to make it seem like they're standing in their respective home countries!

Another large merit of this film is in the neutrality the directors strive for in this film. I never felt like they were campaigning to me about the danger of an image-based society and our collective lack of media literacy. Through these colourful clips, Danielson & Van Aertryck valiantly attempt to present the issues as level-headedly as possible; allowing me the space to come to my own conclusions about our current media culture.


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A young Chinese man stands in front of a converted ship in a park in Chengdu. He is wearing a vest and shorts and looking at the camera. There are high rise buildings behind him
Image: Ben Mullinkosson / CPH:DOX

The Last Year of Darkness / 午夜出走 (dir. Ben Mullinkosson)

Ben Mullinkosson’s second full-length documentary ‘The Last Year of Darkness’ is a thrilling, neon-tinged love letter to the Chengdu party scene which includes a nod to the innate tensions its members face from existing within a country that is less than accepting of this hedonistic lifestyle.

Revolving around five friends the director made whilst drinking plum wine, the film is a commemoration of their venue of choice, Funky Town, a queer club that was once epicenter of the underground community before its untimely closure.

Intercut between genuinely decent club footage (something I found commendable as it’s something that is rarely ever done well in films), are ominous high-angle shots of construction cranes and steel foundations emerging out of the ground around the club as a pervasive wave of gentrification begins to edge closer and closer to the group’s beloved venue.

‘The Last Year of Darkness’ does a fantastic job of emulating the extreme highs and lows of the underground club kid lifestyle in this Chinese province - a narrative Westerners aren’t usually privy to for obvious reasons. Early on in the film, there is a heartwrenching moment where a drag queen named Yihao tries to hail a taxi and gets ignored by multiple drivers unwilling to pick him up. We also witness bust ups over unpaid bills in rough and ready living conditions and tense conversations with parents pressuring their obviously queer son to try and find a wife.

Rubbing up against these gloomy scenarios are buoyant scenes of excitement as we watch someone getting dressed up to hit the club or a joyously comedic shot of Funky Town resident DJ Gennady Baranov swiping on Tinder across two mobile phones to maximize his chances of getting laid. Another moment which garnered big laughs in the auditorium occurred when when Mullinkosson captures Kimberly, another character this film revolves around, chatting to someone in a smoking area about mindfulness whilst, in the foreground, a girl tries her best to hold back vomit before relenting and puking pure liquid in a plastic cup.

The film looks drop dead gorgeous - which is hardly surprising given the director’s background in Vice reportage and Sundance-nominated commercials. Having learned about Mullinkosson’s background and subsequently heard the cast speak about working on ‘their character’s narratives’ in a Q&A after the screening, I came out of it with lots of questions about how much of ‘The Last Year of Darkness’ we can actually call a documentary (especially in relation to the themes of the film reviewed above). With every outfit, stylized camera angle & choice cut of dialogue, it’s really hard to tell where the real stops and a filmic simulation of these characters’ lived experiences began.

At one point, Rapper 647 clips a car whilst delivering food on his moped & gets into an argument with the driver over damages. Considering this totally chance encounter, the whole bust up is a little too well captured to not have been intricately staged from the outset. Similarly, Kimberly convinces her less party-prone boyfriend to stay out with her friends all night and watch the sunrise on a roof-top. The scene ends with some extremely intimate footage of the couple arguing that, again, had me pinching myself that what we are seeing is authentically ‘real’. Mullinkosson’s postmodern play with form, existing in space that's too perfect for warts-and-all realism but too authentic to be fiction, makes for a stimulating watch of this depiction of life in the fast lane.

The Flag (dir. Joseph Paris)

A provocative depiction to the barely-hidden Islamophobia that exists in France, experimental filmmaker Joseph Paris exposes the malevolent media dynamics and the draconian state powers the government has operationalised following the attacks in Paris & Nice in 2015-6.

The film’s narrative is carried predominantly by interviews with Yasser Louati, a human rights activist who we see at the beginning of the film being berated by CNN anchors who are disappointed for not issuing an apology on behalf of the Muslim community for the Paris attacks.

Even though I was aware of the majority of issues raised in the film beforehand, viewing ‘The Flag’ viscerally brings this reality to life via the harrowing footage Paris cuts together. At one point, two sons and their mother recount their experience of an ID check which resulted in them being beaten by the police as they're surrounded by members of their community. I couldn’t help but shudder at the harrowing images of the entire Parliamentary Assembly applauding an openly racist speech delivered by French President François Hollande or clips from the late 80s of white workers launching projectiles in the direction of striking immigrant workers merely campaigning for equal working conditions. The cyclical nature of these events, that sit multiple decades apart, is truly staggering.

There’s a real sense of urgency in the editing style that evokes the oppressiveness & instability of life in France that the filmmaker is trying to communicate. Footage stutters and leaps over a few frames in jumpcuts. There are highly stylised triptychs of monochrome news footage sometimes with the eyes of mouths of right-wing politicians scratched out.

This Godard-meets-Aronofsky treatment of the footage really adds to tonality of ‘The Flag’ and expands the visual language of the film over the more predictable sections of talking heads or montage and voice over. I felt as if I was watching a tense dystopian thriller flick at times, a very depressing thought when you consider that this is a distressing reality for so many in the republic of France.

Stay tuned for the next instalment of Alex's CPH:DOX coverage next week


Alex Elder is NTS Radio's resident night watchman, professional content farmer, and film critic.

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