Everything is Under Control is this year theme for the Documentary Film Festival CPH:DOX, it is a very general concept to be analyzed, what did you have in mind when you chose the title and is it related to any specific issue?
Mads Mikkelsen: Everything is Under Control is the concept that covers several sections of the festival. The idea behind that concept is that Control is a taboo in non-fiction filmmaking, at least in a traditional form, where documentary thought to be something that is spontaneous, improvised, with a polite distance to the events that the filmmakers are observing and chasing after. A part of the profile of CPH:DOX is that we have been trying to extend documentary screenings to include and integrate other art forms and narratives, stylistic devices, and this concept is a sort of elaboration of that mission of the festival. The idea behind the selected films for that program, was that we would have curate a section which covers four series: the two guest curated programs by AiWeiwei and The Yes Men, a section on China, and then a series called Everything is Under Control, and that is where the concept comes from.
The section Everything is Under Control, really takes that concept and pushes it towards its limits, wherever they are, so it is a section about form, in a sense, where there are films that are make to look like documentaries but are not, films such as Propaganda (Editor’s Note: directed by Slavko Martinov, New Zeland, 2012, 95m.) and Computer Chess (Editor’s Note: directed by Andrew Bujalski, US, 2012, 92m.), where real people are performing their own identities, like in The Machine which Make Everything Disappear (Editor’s Note: directed by Tinatin Gurchiani, original title Manqana, Romelic Kvelafers Gaaqrobs, Georgia/Germany, 2012, 101m.) and in The Dirties (Editor’s Note: directed by Matt Johnson, US, 2013, 83m.). But it is also a section that looks at how Control is managed not only in within the films, but also in the reality that they reflect.
All the films in that section are very different but the one thing that they share is that they are not self contained films, they are also very much intervening with the surrounding reality, and at some point there has also been a lost of control, and the film Propaganda illustrates that. Propaganda was made to looks like a North Korean film, punching western values and American consumer culture, so it’s like 1h30 of something that really looks like a North Korean propaganda film, but that was made in New Zeland. When the film was released it was released as if it was a real North Korean propaganda film, and it backfired because everybody thought it was for real. An actor in the film who is South Korean living in New Zeland, pretended to be a north Korean professor in the film, and everybody in this community in New Zeland thought he was a spy, so they totally excluded him from his South Korean community, he had to move to another school, and then they had to relaunch the campaign for the film to trying to convince everybody that that it was fake, and they sort of lost the control over the film.
Another film that is also interesting to talk about here is Charlie Victor Romeo (Editor’s Note: in European première, directed by Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels and Karyn Michelson, US, 2013, 80m.) is an American film that is actually based on a stage play, it is reenacting tape recording from black boxes, based on six recordings, where there is some sort of problem in emergency landings, and is shooted in 3D. Again it’s a controversial film in that sense, a lot of the films in that section are intervening with reality, instead of simply portraying it, at the same time it is also illustrating in many ways the need for Control, which is also something we wanted to explore with the section, the way that contemporary society, at least in western world, is obsessed with control and safety.
Having Ai Weiwei as curator naturally goes with a section about China, about control systems and about propaganda at large. How did the collaboration start with Ai Weiwei and how was to have him as a curator?
Niklas Engstrøm: Every winter after the festival, we start the discussions on who should be the guest curator, and this year we had already discussed about having a focus on China, because it will be the 25th anniversary of Chinese documentary, and the situation of Chinese documentary films is really bad at the moment, right now the government and authorities at large are really breaking down all possibilities for Chinese documentaries, they are closing down festivals and so on. So I was planning to go to China to meet Chinese documentaries filmmakers and in this discussion it was very obvious that Ai Weiwei will pop-up.
I should also say that one of the inspirations for all of this came from our knowledge of the new Danish documentary film made by Andreas Johnsen called The Fake Case (Editor’s Note: directed by Andreas Johnsen, Denmark, 2013, 89m.) it is a portrait of Ai Weiwei, it is an observational film about Ai Weiwei, that takes off the American film Never Sorry where it ended. So we had already selected this film as opening film, and with that in mind it was clear to us that there were so many reasons to approach Ai Weiwei.
I went to Beijing and talked to the documentaries filmmakers and the director of The Fake Case, Andreas Johnsen, helped me to get in touch with Ai Weiwei and I met with him and had a very interesting conversation about the topic of Control, of having Everything Under Control and again having nothing under control. I approached him in Beijing this spring asking him if he wanted to curate the program, and told him that we had this idea of an overall concept of the festival, and we thought that he would be an amazing curator for this program because exactly of what he is doing: he is so reflective, he is producing documentaries, and he is really an activist, and he is working in an environment that is extremely controlled at least with government that really tries to have Everything Under Control.
His selection of films is very much dealing with power structures and also with the potential of crashing these power structures. Olympia (Editor’s Note: directed by Leni Riefenstahl, Germany, 1938, 239 m.) for instance, is part of that, and it also refers to his own encounter with the Olympic committee in Beijing, he designed the bigger stadium, and afterwards, in 2008, he really started criticizing the Chinese government. I think it has been a wonderful collaboration, extremely elegant, and he also kept the deadlines, which is really hard working with guest curators. It is always a risk to work with guest curators because is not under control!
Is there a country or geographical area where the documentaries production is out of control?
Niklas Engstrøm: The Philippines is a good example and China is a very good example, because, and that’s what Ai Weiwei says in the video where he presents his program, “In the information age nothing is under control”, and China is a paradox because it is one of the countries which try the most to have Everything Under Control, but the country is so extremely big and so extremely complex that is impossible to control the films been made, so the story of Chinese documentaries is extremely interesting and so closely related to the technical development of the small digital cameras. Suddenly people, especially artists, they can take their small cameras, go out and film the reality that they see, and it is a very different reality than both the one that is presented by Beijing and authorities, and also than the reality presented by western media. It’s really a row, harsh, out of control reality. So in that sense the Chinese and the Scandinavian documentaries are completely opposite. It is really interesting for us also to show this films in Denmark because those documentaries are so raw and ugly in a sense, people are not used to that here, and to get that shock treatment that was really something we wanted to do.
Mads Mikkelsen: The contemporary Chinese film scene is also an example of how the images production is a political act, the films are raw and not about aesthetics, they are not about creating perfect rounded silken worlds. While in the North films are well rounded, the Chinese films are about documenting, registering, keeping evidence even get the testimonies, for all these reasons the making of images and the recording of sound is really a political action, which is very different from the situation here. A political film here presents an argument, with a visual evidence, there is rhetoric to that, where for instance the film Stay Home! by AiWeiwei (Editor’s Note: presented in world première, directed by AiWeiwei, China 2013, 77m), is an on the spot documentary.
Niklas Engstrøm: Stay Home!, presented in world première here, by AiWeiwei, is really not a beautiful film, but it has a beauty in that combination of image and action, that is precise, so in that sense is something where the reality and the image just blur and combine together, it is something that is worth fighting for.
Mads Mikkelsen: It’s also interesting that the films by AiWeiwei remind us the consensus of what is a good film in Europe and in the North: it is a norm, it is not an objective given, that a good film presents emotionally engaging stories, that is wrote in an artistically and aesthetic pleasing form. A film can be brutal and “ugly”, and still be an amazing film. And that said that film it’s also very emotionally involving.