The Dogme Manifesto: A cause for Celebration.
The Dogme Manifesto: A cause for Celebration.
At the Odéon Theatre in Paris 1995 the film community was gathered to celebrate the centenary of Cinema. 100 years prior, the Lumiére brothers recorded their film ‘L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (1885) which is simply translated as: The arrival of a train at the Ciotat station. This short film is widely regarded as the ‘birth of cinema’ and legend since its initial screening has been circulating for years. It is said people ran and screamed as the train approach the camera; the audience in Paris convinced of an impending collision as the fictive train rolled into the station - such was the novelty of the experience at the time. These albeit amusing details are untrue, derived from what was undoubtedly an astonishing event at the time, that over each decade since has been perverted and subjected to a rather romantic and nostalgic interpretation of the inception of cinema into the public consciousness.
However, such dramaturgy points to a time in filmmaking where filmmakers innocently recorded what was simply there in front of them, capturing the moment for what it was, leaving the spectator to project what they will onto the image. For Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, this Luddite spirit embodies what cinema should be; pure and irreverent towards studio meddling and big budgets, against the use of superfluous filmmaking equipment with a gratuitous use of shot listing and storyboarding, against the way in which a film is pre conceived and effectively shot before production has even began. No one sat in the Odéon Theatre in 1995 could have predicted that Lars von Trier would spontaneously appear on stage, and with all the force of a steam train, it is this exact kind of spontaneity that he wanted to return to filmmaking. Showering his audience with red leaflets, he detailed a manifesto called Dogme 95 – that posited a ‘Vow of Chastity’ a filmmaker must follow in order to retreat back to the days of the Lumiére’s, when Cinema was fresh and new and allowed filmmaking to be a process of discovery, rather than a methodological process of following a detailed plan that simply leads to a preconceived image and garners often predictable results.
Unpredictability essentially, was missing.
Together with fellow Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg, Lars von Trier wrote a set of rules, that by abstinence he and Vinterberg believed would cultivate creativity and originality by stripping back the filmmaking process and forcing the filmmaker to improvise on set; leaving them almost naked, without the security of a shot list at hand, or a nice steady set of tracks to guide the camera for them.
This list of rules was as follows:
- Shooting must be done on location – props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary to the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
- The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.)
- The camera must be handheld. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place).
- The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera.)
- Optical work and filters are forbidden.
- The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
- Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)
- Genre movies are not acceptable.
- The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
- The director must not be credited.
So, what are the effects of these rules? To answer this question, I wish to briefly comment upon my experience of watching the first Dogme film – Festen (The Celebration) (1998) directed by Thomas Vinterberg for the first time.
I was first shown a clip in a screenwriting lecture in my first year at University, and I had simply never seen anything like it. The scene in question is infamous for its stark take on paedophilia and familial paralysis. To offer context, a large family is gathered for its patriarch’s 60th Birthday in his rich and decadent hotel. Everyone besides his daughter, who has recently committed suicide. This man is Helge, and his son, Christian, has risen to make a speech in front of his family. His speech is titled ‘when Dad had his bath’ and this leads to a simmer of laughter from everyone present at the dinner table.
Everyone except Helge.
Immediately, I felt something was wrong. The look written across Christian’s face in this scene, who is played brilliantly by Ulrich Thomsen, offers an almost manic sense of aplomb. A self-assurance in what he is saying, stemming from the fact he knows the shocking conclusion of his story before anyone else. Gently building up to his reveal, Christian divulges how he and his sister Linda - “who is now dead” – used to play together, causing mischief in the hotel and getting into trouble. More than anything however, it was much more dangerous ‘when Dad had his bath’. Christian goes on to explain, to a gently quietening room, how before Helge cleaned himself he would take him and Linda into his study, would lock the door, roll down the blinds, make them undress, “and abuse us sexually”.
Like the fictive audience on screen, I was stunned. The lecture theatre I was in went silent. The stark and matter of fact manner in which Christian reveals this revelation to his family is astounding. I had to know what followed, and so the following evening I got the film out from the library and watched it in full.
And what succeeded this scene, to my amazement, was a complete lack of acknowledgement for what Christian had just divulged. One family member even starts to applaud, though is swiftly shut down by the person beside him. Vinterberg has since gone on to say he used the family in this film to comment on the societal norms of Denmark; in this case particularly, the way in which it is socially mandated to underreact, rather than overreact and cause a scene. This exact tendency to ‘sweep things under the rug’ in Danish culture is painfully apparent in Festen. Christian’s mother manipulates the moment of her son’s confession by turning the room against him, dismissing his embarrassing outburst as simply him always having been a bit different, with a very wild and overactive imagination. After summoning the courage to out what his father did to him and his late sister for all those years, Christian is very publicly betrayed by his own mother.
It was this moment in particular which engendered a very subjective confrontation with the film for me. The injustice rife in the scene really bothered me, and continues to do so now, two years after first watching this film. I sincerely doubt, had the film been shot in any other way, I would have had quite the same response. The shaky, handheld style and grainy look to the film gives the impression you are yourself a family member, privy to these events (some scenes in the film are in fact recorded by the extras). There is none of the typical ‘Hollywood gloss’ textured over the image, diluting the subtext with a fabricated lens flare or an engineered tracking shot. The realism of the scene is magnified by the rudimental way in which it is shot, preserving I feel, the truth behind the images. The aesthetic is unpredictable, devoid of any clear sense of continuity, which gives the unceasing impression the narrative could go anywhere.
This is not to say I felt like running away from the screen at any moment. I was aware what I was watching was still fiction (unlike the unfortunate audience members in Paris 1885, so the story goes) however, I did have a sense that what I had watched was very radical and new. In short, despite what I might have felt from the films subject matter, I was simply glad a film like this existed; a film concerned with pointing at reality, rather than framing fiction – it was very refreshing, and has since inspired almost every creative endeavour of my own.
And this movement in film history never would have materialised if Vinterberg and von Trier hadn’t met. Events like the Film Expo South are filled with ambitious filmmakers, all with their own manifesto inside them, waiting for the right person to come along and the right set of circumstances to change the face of cinema. As clichéd as it sounds, an important first step towards success is cultivating these relationships from the beginning.
Get out there, meet new people with the same passion, and perhaps you can emulate what a couple of filmmakers did from the small nation of Denmark, and tell stories’ that do more than entertain, but inspire and continue to resonate long after the end credits roll.