Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

«We aim to accommodate differing opinions and be welcoming towards them, even those critical of our role»

CPH:DOX / With its Head of Industry and Artistic Director, we discuss specific aspects of the CPH:DOX Industry programme, the secrets of a well-rounded festival, ensuring safety and free speech for all, and much more.

As one of the largest documentary film festivals in the world, CPH:DOX is set to kick off its 21st year, running from 13 – 24 March in Copenhagen. CPH:DOX was founded in 2003 and continues to develop and expand, presenting a programme that ranges from major international film works to new talents, from large-scale theatrical releases to film/video works in the field between cinema and visual art. The program goes beyond traditional boundaries between disciplines and media, offering perspectives on creative crossovers between cinema, television, new media, and art.

With CPH:DOX 2024 kicking off this week, Modern Times Review spoke with its Head of Industry, Mara Gourd-Mercado, and Artistic Director Niklas Engstrøm. In this conversation, we discuss specific aspects of the CPH Industry programme, the secrets of a well-rounded festival, ensuring safety and free speech for all, and much more.

Mara, could you describe your road to the festival? How did you find yourself as the head of industry this year?

[Mara Gourd-Mercado]: I’m from Montreal, so as you can hear, I’m not Danish. I worked for six years as the executive director of the Montreal International Documentary Festival. Before that, I was a publicist for fiction, documentary, and music films. Then, I was with the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television for the Quebec section for the last two years. I wanted to return to the documentary space and work in that industry again.

I had been to CPH:DOX in 2017 as a delegate, part of the Canadian delegation. We’ve always had links between the two organizations, so I knew part of the team. When the position opened up, many friends and contacts from Europe sent it to me, suggesting it might be interesting. The idea of working on the European continent and returning to documentaries at a festival that has been doing so much and so well was an exciting challenge.

The idea of working on the European continent and returning to documentaries at a festival that has been doing so much and so well was an exciting challenge.

You mentioned wanting to return to the documentary space. What is it about documentary, the genre, or the industry that was appealing for you to reenter?

[MGD]: It’s a combination of both. I believe in documentaries’ role in building citizenship and oneself within society. The documentary industry requires empathy and a love for others, which is really gratifying to be part of. Returning to work in this realm, though not always easy, is so rewarding when you see the effects it can have.

Documentaries are not just about impact and presenting truths; they’re also an excellent space for creative and innovative expression, pushing the boundaries of cinematic language. I love that documentaries encompass exploring form and content and relating to others. In times like today, where many of us may feel a loss of control, documentaries can serve as an anchor, bringing food for thought into many discussions.

There are many areas within CPH:DOX’s industry activities where those sorts of dialogues and conversations can be had. With so many moving parts in a festival like CPH:DOX, how do you approach curating an industry programme that’s well-rounded yet still touching on what you and the industry find important?

[MGD]: It’s a mix of things. There’s a lot of consultations, of course. Early in the fall, we consulted with the Danish industry and throughout the year at different events, talking with filmmakers, producers, and funders and participating in think tanks. These discussions help identify current topics and emerging trends, the “low frequencies,” which will become more prominent. We also look at our programming to ensure it covers all industry aspects that should be discussed.

Additionally, surveys received at the end of the festival, though sometimes overlooked, provide valuable feedback. Industry professionals share reflections and suggestions, which are crucial for creating a programme that caters to its community. An industry event is as strong as its ability to engage in dialogue with its community.

An industry event is as strong as its ability to engage in dialogue with its community.

Let’s expand that with Niklas regarding a well-rounded overall programme. What about this dynamic between the industry, film programme, or peripheral activities? How do you approach the overall festival, industry included, in a well-rounded way?

[Niklas Engstrøm]: To make a film programme at a documentary festival today, it’s obvious that you need to reflect on reality and discuss reality in all its many aspects. To me, the overall criteria is relevance. To be relevant, a festival must talk about or open up for discussion all these internal and external conflict areas that we all meet daily. And that goes for the wider community, nationally and internationally. It also goes further for the film community.

Then, expanding on the topic of industry relevance, it’s clear that festival filmmaking has changed over the years. We are in a different position today than when Mara was here in 2017. The festival has grown at an immense speed. Today, we are also very much a film market; more and more sales agents, distributors, and buyers are coming. They are looking at the programme and seeing more and more films here for the first time. It’s the second year in a row where all our films in the main competition are world premieres.

It is an interesting challenge to keep being creative in your programming, to keep daring, and to keep breaking boundaries while still catering to an industry more than ever. Luckily, it’s a very fun challenge. Personally, I love the most artistic, strange films you can find, and I love the really popular films. That’s also how we try to curate the CPH:DOX programme overall, to go to the extremes and find the extremes.

[MGD]: Going back to your initial question. We’re always trying to find ways to collaborate on different things with Niklas and his team. How can we have the programming team participate in what we do and vice versa? To really know both sides of this coin. The more we can do that, the richer the programme will be on both sides.

As you mentioned, the festival has grown noticeably from 2017 to now. What has led to this growth, especially in the last few years? Where does this situate CPH:DOX within the European festival and industry landscape, particularly in differentiating its industry focus from others in the field?

[NE]: Starting with the historical perspective, ever since we launched the festival in 2003, we’ve been growing, fueled by the team’s energy and willingness to explore and do things our way. This approach made us stand out, especially our exploration of the hybrid area between documentary and fiction. Initially, we had no long-term plan of conquering the world; we simply aimed to create a documentary festival. However, as we grew, it became clear we had outgrown our initial November slot. Moving the festival to spring in 2017 allowed for further growth, making CPH:DOX the big European festival in spring and creating a clear connection across the pond with Sundance in January and CPH:DOX in March.

[MGD]: With that growth, the diversity of works presented—both popular and marketable alongside those more artistic or challenging—bridged the gap between North America and Europe. Today, CPH:DOX serves as a market and festival where North America meets Europe, specifically for documentaries.

Today, CPH:DOX serves as a market and festival where North America meets Europe, specifically for documentaries.

Visiting CPH:DOX, I’ve noticed a more prominent North American presence and a programme that often reflects a more North American aesthetic and approach. Mara, can you share your insights on the differences between the European and North American approaches to documentary and the industry?

[MGD]: More than artistic differences, what stands out to me, as a North American in Europe, is the proximity and circulation of ideas due to the close distances between industry players and filmmakers. This proximity fosters a strong community of ideas, enriching industry programmes. CPH:DOX’s significant North American contingent and global participation create a space where the world meets.

Comparatively, discussions on topics like narrative sovereignty or cultural appropriation carry different meanings and histories in Europe than in North America, offering interesting perspectives and challenges.

[NE]: Having Mara on the team has been enriching our discussions. Having these conversations within the team is important, bringing diverse perspectives to the festival.

[MGD]: and vice versa. It’s the exchange that really builds something.

CPH Forum

I wanted to delve into some specific topics that will be discussed within the conference. One of the most interesting things is «Our Declaration of Independence.» Why is this conversation relevant right now? And how does the definition of independence change from North America to Europe, given the differences in funding models and the sometimes, in my opinion, shaky definition of independence in the North American context?

[MGD]: «Our Declaration of Independence» stems from DISCO, a network of festivals and organizations backed by Doc Society. It addresses streamers’ dominance in distribution and traditional models’ shakiness. It questions what independent production means across different contexts, including the Global South, the US, and Europe. The idea is to find a common language for independent production, providing tools for filmmakers to demand necessary changes in laws, approaches, and funding. In today’s environment of fake news and political interference in filmmaking, protecting the independence of documentary filmmaking is crucial for diverse perspectives and truth-telling.

In today’s environment of fake news and political interference in filmmaking, protecting the independence of documentary filmmaking is crucial for diverse perspectives and truth-telling.

I’m interested in two other topics at the conference: «Black Stories, White Money» and «A Conflict of Interest or an Interest in Conflict.” These are particularly relevant given current global conflicts and the varying perspectives brought by an international audience. How do you facilitate these conversations with inherently limited representation on stage?

[MGD]: Starting with «Black Stories, White Money» the industry is reckoning with who controls funding and whose stories are told. This conversation explores equity and representation, questioning the distribution of funds and the lack of representation among decision-makers.

«An interest in Conflict or Conflict of Interest» examines the ethics of documenting conflicts, avoiding exploitative practices, and understanding the impact of choosing what to show and how. These panels aim to question and analyze filmmaking practices in the context of global diversity and political views, fostering dialogue and reflection on these complex issues.

CPH:DOX audience

It’s good that you mentioned that because I wanted to close by expanding on this topic. Given the state of the world and the major film festivals over the last few months, the space for dialogue must allow for it to happen. In my opinion, the Berlinale did not allow that dialogue to happen at all. IDFA got caught in the middle, not quite having the foundation to navigate that space at that time. From the overall industry programme perspective and an artistic director perspective, there are going to be tough conversations, especially around Ukraine and Russia, and mainly with Gaza and Israel. Programme disruption, elevated tension, and emotion are highly likely. How do you ensure people can exercise their right to free speech within the festival framework and maintain a well-rounded conversation without leaning too far into a one-sided perspective?

[NE]: We are preparing for dialogue and conversation, even in unexpected times, because it will happen. Since 7 October, we’ve been discussing how to engage as a documentary festival in conversations about real-world realities and conflicts. We’ve found common ground that CPH:DOX is about conversation, dialogue, and creating a space for differing opinions, even those that are opposing and conflicting. Discussions on these topics are hard and can make us angry, touching on identities as well. We aim to accommodate differing opinions and be welcoming towards them, even those critical of our role. We are open to filmmakers using their time at the festival to talk about issues they find more important, like Gaza, and we’ve decided not to shy away from showing films about Israel-Palestine, reflecting what’s going on in the world.

We’ve found common ground that CPH:DOX is about conversation, dialogue, and creating a space for differing opinions, even those that are opposing and conflicting.

Is there any concern that this topic might overtake everything else the festival is trying to do this year?

[MGD]: Yes, there’s that possibility, but we don’t operate in a vacuum. If it happens, it’s because it was needed. There are moments in history where, despite preparation and efforts to create dialogue spaces, emotions, and opinions run high, and there’s little individually we can do. It goes with the territory, and if it helps process what’s happening, then so be it.

[NE]: I agree but believe that entering the conversation and creating a programme for discussion offers a better solution than avoiding it. We’ve made space in the programme for discussions about the Gaza conflict, similar to how we addressed the Ukraine conflict previously. It’s important to also focus on conflicts that are being overlooked, like the conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh, to encourage discussions that mass media might overlook.

All you can do is provide a safe space where people can express their opinions constructively. CPH:DOX is in a position to show other major festivals how to have these conversations without suppression.

Steve Rickinson
Steve Rickinson
Steve lives in Bucharest, Romania. He is Communications Manager and Industry Editor of MTR.

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