- CPH:DOX 2021 ran 21 April to 12 May.
You open the front door to a man standing on your door step. A film camera sits on his shoulder, with a fluffy oversized microphone attached.
Have you won a prize? Has some murky part of your past come back to bite you? Are you about to get killed by a Peeping Tom copycat murderer?
Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom comes to mind because a man with a camera shows up on women’s doorsteps and kills them. My sixth-form film tutor screened it to us. He was later caught filming secretly up the skirts of shoppers in a high street fashion chain store – and a stash of footage from hidden cameras in the girls’ loos was then found on campus. It can be hard to trust a man and a camera.
This idea is explored in two very different documentaries that screened at this years’ CPH:DOX, A Man and a Camera (which world-premiered at CPH:DOX) and The Case You (which world-premiered at last November’s IDFA). Both have very different tones. The Case You is a response to boundaries crossed, A Man and a Camera is testing the boundaries. A Man and a Camera is playful and strange. The Case You is angry. It is both a reenactment and an invocation, and calls to question the ethics in nonfiction filmmaking; how it can be that a documentary constructed out of director-driven abuse, a man in power abusing women looking for work, is accepted by an international film festival, under the auspices of ‘art’.
The Case You is a film that reunites a group of young actresses who were harassed and sexually assaulted on a film set, under the guise of an audition. It is revealed that Alison Kuhn, The Case You’s director, had also auditioned that day. The topic of the film was abuse. On an empty stage in a film school, the women remember and recreate the day, shifting between playing the roles of one another and the transgressors. At the time, most of the actresses at the audition were minors.
“You’re invited to get undressed in the casting, you don’t have to, but the director would appreciate it” was the line. A problematic power dynamic from the get-go. Cajoled and bullied by female production staff at the audition, the actresses were then forcibly undressed and inappropriately touched, no consent sought. The women run through the thoughts that went through their heads – their reasoning, horror and shame. The male director and his team looked on, silent witnesses, filming – one actress recalls how it felt like a ‘group abuse’. Unbeknownst to the actresses, the footage was made into a documentary, and selected to premiere at a major film festival.
The Case You uses a minimal set. Bouts of recreations are book-ended with experimental sequences where the actresses respond to the camera, meet its gaze and circle it. One brings her hands to frame her face, aping protective metal flaps that fan out from film lighting. Opening and closing them slowly, the message is clear. The spotlight’s on you now.
A bluish light plays on the actresses’ faces as we observe them watching a recording of a panel on abuse of power in the film industry – hosted by the film festival that had selected the film, and including an actor who was present at the audition. Amused disbelief, outrage and shock ripple across their faces as a defensive, victim-shaming discussion unfolds.
One of the sad, unsurprising facts to emerge is that the film festival only dropped the film because their sponsors showed concern. It’s no secret that capitalism pumps through the veins of the arts industries, whose liberal interests and rhetoric often hide a poor understanding of the matters at hand, and how they perpetuate a culture both exclusionary and exploitative. The chairman of the panel’s closing remarks as he urges them to have a great time partying that evening clunk with thick insensitivity: “Behave yourselves, for you know… #MeToo.”
Consent to the intrusive gaze of a camera can be violently circumvented, or it can become something of a game. Guido Hendrickx’s A Man and a Camera teases out ideas around fears, assumptions and expectations from finding yourself, inexplicably, at the end of a lens. Is this observational filmmaking at its most authentic? It feels a shame to break the film down because, as the CPH:DOX blurb says, the less you know about the film the better – but there is much to unpack. It is awkward, funny, uncomfortable and mysterious.
The film opens with a roaming view of the pavement beneath the filmmaker’s feet, a field, a horse that turns away, a cat that skitters out of frame. A child bouncing on a trampoline shouts “Hi! Do you want to take my picture?” A man who had been tending to his front garden asks “What’s the meaning of this?”
The question starts to recur. “Is there a deeper meaning?” Ask some of the residents of this small Dutch town who open the door to a wordless man who will film them until they shut the door.
It could be easy to criticise this film as a gimmicky wind-up. A Man and a Camera is a contentious film; finding a stranger pointing a camera in your face is unsettling: you are being watched, and recorded, for whom? For an empathetic viewer it can feel uncomfortable in turn: your gaze is unfalteringly directed at these bewildered strangers and, like the filmmaker, you don’t talk back to reassure them. Rather than feeling like a passive observer invisibly gazing into the lives of others, as so many documentaries allow, you are met with the potential of your own surprise, confusion, vulnerability.
A white man with a camera walks into an indigenous community, foreign to him – cue the history of ethnographic, anthropological documentary filmmaking, of white men pointing film cameras in peoples faces, at their bodies, recording their daily lives. The majority of the subjects at the end of Hendrickx’s lens are white Europeans in their semi-detached homes, and so for many white Europeans who aren’t used to seeing ethnographic depictions of themselves A Man and a Camera must seem like a weird film – what is the meaning of this? Perhaps it means nothing; it is as deep as you choose to read into it.
One woman is distressed – her husband is seriously ill and does not find the filmmaker’s silent presence funny. Another man attacks the filmmaker. Some people are playful, tolerant, and it is clear from their responses that Hendrickx affably gestures that he can’t, or won’t, speak.
Is A Man and a Camera about how we want to be seen by others? The approach is evocative of a Flannery O’Connor story: an odd outsider comes to town, a silent judgement unfolds. Religion reveals itself in the crucifixes on some of the townspeople who welcome him in. One friendly neighbour warns Hendrickx of a town group WhatsApp chat that suggests a curtain-twitching outsider-paranoia. It is a film that can be viewed through a lens of ethics around consent and boundaries, and could also be read as a dumb prank.
Zoom out into deep space and the focus is on us as a species, preparing to search for other signs of life, in The Hunt for Planet B, a film that screened in the Science section of CPH:DOX. A planetary system surrounding the red star Trappist-1 was discovered three years ago, with a couple of planets hovering in the ‘Goldilocks spot’ – the not-too-cold, not-too-hot distance from the star that makes life possible.
As NASA constructs a telescope that could look deeper into the Trappist-1 system, scientists consider the life that could be out there, and what it could mean to make a connection. The James Webb Space Telescope will go deeper into space than any telescope in history – a frontiersman of a telescope, pushing the boundaries, as men and their movie cameras have always boldly endeavoured.
The Hunt for Planet B questions the purpose of exploration, and humanity’s destructive tendencies. Biochemist Nick Lane reminds us that numerous human species are extinct because of us, and how our history of dealing with different races is appalling. If humans can’t treat each other with respect, empathy and care, what business do we have reaching out to putative extraterrestrial life which – as the Trappist-1 is billion of years older than our sun – would have outgrown conflict and aggression in order to survive as a species?
Astronomer Jill Tarter, former director of the SETI Institute, has been listening for years for broadcasts from distant civilisations. “If we’re going to have a future we need to regroup,” she says, putting it lightly.
Boundaries – physical, emotional and geographical – are a tender line. While the human race continues to cross every line possible, violently, thoughtlessly or with ambitious explorative hopes, it is no surprise that a more mature civilisation would have kept its distance.
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The new issue of Sight and Sound
Sofia Coppola on Priscilla and toppling the king Emma Seligman on Bottoms – David Fincher on The Killer – Todd Haynes on May December – Justine Triet on Anatomy of a Fall – tributes to Horace Ové and Terence Davies – Joanna Hogg interviewedGet your copy