«A festival is first and foremost a collective effort brought to you by a team that is only as strong as its weakest link»

CPH:DOX / Modern Times Review speaks with new Artistic Director Niklas Engstrøm.

CPH:DOX was founded in 2003 and has introduced its audience to some of the best Danish and international documentary films in Copenhagen for almost 20 years. As the 2022 edition kick starts today through 3 April, CPH:DOX has become one of the biggest such festivals in the world.

In 2022, new Artistic Director Niklas Engstrøm took the regns fromn Tine Fischer for his first CPH:DOX edition. Here, Modern Times Review speaks with Engstrøm on his philosophy behind the artistic direction, adjusting back to physical screenings, and more.

As the Artistic Director of CPH:DOX, my primary role is to set the direction of the festival

In your words, what is the role and responsibility of a festival’s Artistic Director? How does this play into your own approach to the role?
As the Artistic Director of CPH:DOX, my primary role is to set the direction of the festival: What are the core values of the festival, what makes our festival unique, how can we develop the festival in new ways, and how can we keep challenging the notion of documentary and the notion of a film festival. Obviously, this involves the curatorial line of our selection, mainly in the competitive sections, but also very much in terms of how we should structure the programme. For a festival like CPH:DOX, it’s not only about the films, but also about how we contextualize them in terms of talks, events and the physical structures around the film – the venues.

But being an Artistic Director is also very much about bringing freedom to all of the great, creative people working in the festival, leading them, helping them, coaching them, because a festival is first and foremost a collective effort brought to you by a team that is only as strong as its weakest link.

Where do you feel you fall into the landscape of the festival’s artistic vision and evolution?
Well, I’ve been with the festival since the very beginning, having been working with Tine Fischer from the earliest days when we discussed the very name of the event. My whole love for documentary cinema was born by programming the first festival back in 2003 – because at the time, I was a big film buff, but it was all about fiction. Watching all these inventive documentary films really changed my whole perspective on what cinema was and could be. And since then I feel like CPH:DOX and I have grown up together organically: Starting out with a young, provocative fuck-all-boundaries-attitude, later getting wiser, more professional but also much more activist in our approach to the genre and its capabilities in making room for change. Oh yes, I know how boring that sounds! But I see the development more as a really exciting way of discovering new sides of documentary cinema, more sides of the festival while staying true to oneself – and the natural change in perspective connected to getting 20 years older…

Then, for the past couple of years, everything has been about how to survive and ride the wave of the new digital reality that all festivals have had to face. And right now, I feel we’re about to make yet another great change in the coming years. It’s on its way, I can feel it’s on its way, but what it will be exactly, that hasn’t materialized yet. Something is coming, a necessity and an opportunity, and it’s just around the corner. Right now, I can only leave it as a cliffhanger.

Something is coming, a necessity and an opportunity, and it’s just around the corner.

After two years of pandemic related adjustments, CPH:DOX is back in physical form? What are some new or different aspects of the festival this year vs. the last physical edition?
It’s simply amazing to be back in physical form! Any film festival needs the big screens in the dark rooms that are also social spaces in a way that I don’t believe the digital realm will ever be able to fully replicate. That said, we’ve of course learned a lot from the two digital years, and the most important new aspect of this year’s edition as compared to the last physical one (which was three years ago!) is that we’ll have full digital dimension to the festival, both in terms of the industry and audience programme.

The digital programme of course makes it possible for the festival to be a fully nationwide event – and we had so much great feedback from people all over the country during the digital days that it would have been a disaster to discontinue this part of the festival. That said, I believe the physical screenings will always be the core of the festival, and therefore we’ve decided to bring smaller ‘micro festivals; to more than 20 cities all over Denmark during the festival – and then the digital screenings will only start after people have had to see the films together in a cinema, no matter where they live. I’m very excited about the prospects of this approach.

On curatorial terms, we’re following a strategy focusing on three tracks that I see as forming the thematic core focus of CPH:DOX: Art, Science and Society. And these thematic tracks reflect our belief in the core values of documentary: The artistic power of documentary, its ability to bring knowledge and enlightenment and not least to inspire people to engage in the world around them. This year, we have created three programmes reflecting those three tracks and placed them on three new stages, including the National Gallery of Art as our new Art Stage and The National Museum as our new Science stage.

Do you feel like there are some permanent changes to the festival landscape as a result of the pandemic?
Yes, as mentioned above, I think the digital dimension won’t disappear. Film culture had already undergone a massive digital change before the pandemic, and it’s only been multiplied by the era of Covid-19, so I truly think it’s necessary for film festivals to reflect that. With prospects of a «metaversian» future, I think that in a few years’ time, we will look back at 2020 as the starting point for a truly hybrid future of film festivals as events. And I think the hybridity will be even more prevalent in the future than the strictly divided (admittedly, a bit conversative) version that we have envisioned at this year’s CPH:DOX.

For you, is there a seminal film, filmography, or filmmaker that really kick-started your interest in documentary?
Lots! However, rather than picking one film or filmmaker, I’d suggest that there is one seminal film event for me – i.e. the very first edition of CPH:DOX back in 2003. I was 23 at the time, and as I mentioned earlier, it was really a turning point for my understanding of cinema. Let me illustrate by examples of filmmakers I discovered through the programming of the first festival: Peter Mettler simply blew my mind with Gambling, Gods and LSD, showing me how the documentary essay form can reach – and I would say, even surpass – the philosophical and aesthetic level of the highest literature. Victor Kossakovsky taught me the utter beauty of simplicity in Tishe. I discovered Ulrich Seidl through Jesus, du weisst, Errol Morris through The Fog of War, Deborah Stratman through In Order not be here, Max Kestner through Down to Earth (Nede på Jorden), Werner Herzog’s documentary side with Wheel of Time. Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Brian’s The Revolution will not be Televised showed me how the inherent unpredictability of reality just makes the potential of documentary so much greater than fiction. And on the other hand, Apichatpong’s Mysterious Object at Noon and this strange and ethically problematic Hungarian film called Vakvagany made me see the enormous aesthetic goldmine placed around the ever-porous border between documentary and fiction. Well, I could go on and on. CPH:DOX 2003 was a seminal event that changed my life and understanding of art, media and cinema completely. The great thing is that I wasn’t the last one to be touched by the festival and its films in such a profound way. And that is very much part of why it’s still so meaningful to arrange this festival after 20 years.

Featured Image: Yann Houlberg Andersen

Steve Rickinson
Steve Rickinson
Communications Manager and Industry Editor at Modern Times Review.

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