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Mainstreaming the Margins: Shane Smith's Notes from CPH:DOX

Copenhagen has got it together.

From the cheap and easy train ride from the airport to the city centre, to the city-wide bike lanes and rental bikes equipped with iPads for easy access and route mapping, to the effortlessly cool design aesthetic, the Danes have seemingly smoothed out the rough edges of urban living. And yet there’s plenty of room for messiness, freedom and adventure—see Christiania, the utopian neighbourhood for a unique example of “relaxed anarchy.”

The same could be said of CPH:DOX, the “cool kid” of the doc festival world with a growing reputation and the attendance (both industry and public) to match. Sandwiched in the middle of what is an increasingly crowded fall market for documentaries, with Doc Leipzig, DocNYC and IDFA all taking place either before, during or after, CPH:DOX has carved out a niche as a haven for challenging, artistically-inclined doc filmmaking. With screenings paired with live performances (Canada’s own Godspeed You! Black Emperor put in an appearance this year), and doc showcases in unusual venues including jazz docs in a tower on a bridge, the Festival inspires with a willingness to push the boundaries of both the doc form and traditional modes of exhibition. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of accessible films screening in regular theatres; I managed to catch HARLAN COUNTY USA on the big screen at last, and a best of the year section showcases festival circuit hits. That’s the beauty of CPH:DOX, and Denmark in general—that combination of classic and cool in equal measure.

The same philosophy extends to the Festivals industry programming, with plenty of room for topics big and small, mass and niche, providing a platform to showcase and discuss trends in the documentary world. From putting cameras in the hands of refugees and displaced persons in some of the worlds bleakest places, to experimenting with VR opportunities via a five day prototype workshop at the VR:LAB, to creating a space for innovative doc pitches in the Forum, there’s a multitude of approaches and options available to the growing industry audience seeking out innovation in the documentary space.

I was particularly impressed with the Turning Tables initiative, created to give a voice to young refugees, activists and the poor in the world's hotspots via “film, music and cock and bull stories.” From energetic, if under-resourced, upstarts to partnering with the United Nations Development Programme, Turning Tables illustrates not only the power of personal stories but the life-changing opportunity provided for people to tell their story in their own voice, in their own way. Turning Tables underscored for me the power of authentic, first-person storytelling and the ongoing need to empower young people living in unfathomable conditions to share their stories; the road to change is paved with empathy.

But what about the films? You’ll see at least a few titles that premiered at CPH:DOX show up at Hot Docs 2016. Scandinavia continues to produce some of the most compelling, original and intriguing documentaries in the world, a plethora of which were on offer at the Festival. With an easy to use screening market, interesting pitches at the Forum, a low-key but bustling industry area all housed in and around the venerable Danish Film Institute building, CPH:DOX is designed to facilitate the business of documentary in a way that’s uniquely relaxed yet productive.

With the recent announcement that CPH:DOX will move to March in 2017, the Festival is acknowledging not only that it needs to carve out space in a less-crowded season (although, is there really such a thing in Festival World?), but that it’s growth and increased importance in the documentary world will sustain a radical change in calendar placement. If anyone can pull it off, CPH: DOX, with true radical-yet-sophisticated Danish style, can.

Shane Smith is Director of Programming at Hot Docs. He attended CPH:DOX from November 5 to 15, 2015. 

Categories: From the Road


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