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Dogme: still strong, but less dogmatic

Dave Kehr explores the history of the Dogme film in the New York Times, 21 March 2004

ON March 20, 1995, the Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier stood up at a conference in Paris on the 100th anniversary of the cinema and tossed handfuls of bright red pamphlets into the audience. ''It seems to me that for the last 10 years film has been rubbish,'' Mr. von Trier proclaimed. ''So my question was, what can we do about this?'' His answer was Dogme95, a new film movement, born half in facetiousness and half in seriousness, whose rules were spelled out in the flyers as ''The Vow of Chastity.''

Among the 10 commandments of Dogme95: Shooting must be done on location; the sound must never be produced apart from the images; the camera must be handheld; the film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc.); optical work and filters are forbidden. For Mr. von Trier and the three Danish directors who joined him in signing the Dogme95 manifesto - Thomas Vinterberg, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen and Kristian Levring - the new movement would be a way to escape Hollywood genre films overflowing with technical manipulations and to return to the fundamental honesty of the moving image, much as it was in the 1895 films of the Lumière Brothers.

It has now been nine years since Mr. von Trier's declaration of cinematic independence, and while he himself has moved from Dogme to Dogville (his new film, which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday), the movement he began is still going strong. The latest film to be released bearing the official Dogme95 certificate of authenticity is Annette K. Olesen's somber, spiritual In Your Hands, which will be shown this week in the New Directors/New Films festival presented by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

To date, 35 films have been certified by the movement's governing board, the Dogmesecretariat (, and more continue to be added, even though the Dogmesecretariat has been officially closed since June 2002. (''It was just too much work,'' explained Peter Aalbaek Jensen, Mr. von Trier's longtime producing partner, in a recent interview. ''No one wanted to be bothered with it.'') The 35 titles include some well-known films like Mr. von Trier's Idiots, Mr. Vinterberg's Celebration and Lone Scherfig's Italian for Beginners, but there are also some more obscure ones from countries far outside of Scandinavia, including Korea (Interview by Daniel H. Byun), Spain (Era Outra Vez by Juan Pinzás) and Chile (Residencia by Artemio Espinosa Mc.) The list includes 12 films from the United States, including Harmony Korine's notoriously bizarre study of a schizophrenic, Julien Donkey-Boy of 1999.

The Dogme95 movement may have lasted so long and spread so widely because what initially seemed like a restrictive concept has turned out to be surprisingly flexible, offering different advantages to different people. For Mr. Korine, for example, Dogme meant liberation from some basic narrative rules, like the need to distinguish between real and fantasy sequences. For Mr. von Trier, Dogme was a way of imposing discipline on himself and his work. ''You can say that for all of the films I have made, I have made some by Dogme-style rules, but just not publicly,'' he said recently by telephone from Sweden, where he was about to begin shooting Manderlay, the second part, after Dogville, of his United States trilogy.

''When you look at yourself as a director, you think you are too clever in certain aspects,'' Mr. Von Trier said. ''The rules that you make for yourself should work against that. If I felt I was being a bit too clever and aesthetic about the colors, for example, then the rule would be, 'You are not supposed to touch the color button.' So for my part, that's why my rules are changing all the time. I'm looking at myself from my mentor's point of view.''

For Mr. Jensen, who insists, with the comic self-deprecation that seems part and parcel of both the Dogme movement and the Danish character, on being called a merchant, the Dogme95 certificate has functioned as a public relations device. It's a trademark that can be affixed to films that would otherwise have no traction in the marketplace, no names in the cast, no spectacular special effects. When The Idiots was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, ''it was a disaster,'' Mr. Jensen recalled. ''People really hated it. It was when Soren Kragh-Jacobsen's Mifune was shown at the Berlin festival a year after the launching that people really got crazy about the Dogme movies. Mifune was sold for triple the amount of Celebration, with Italian for Beginners two years later - that was the biggest success of all the Dogme movies.

''Everyone told us to quit after the first four,'' Mr. Jensen remembered. ''But out of stubbornness we proceeded, and now we have made about 10 for our company, and most of them have been quite successful. So somehow, without wanting it, it has become some kind of a brand. These days, I don't see the Dogme principles as so interesting, but I think, for some crazy reason, that these stupid rules generate some rather interesting movies. I don't know why, but there is something happening when they put all of these obstacles into a project.''

From the beginning, Dogme has been shaped by a mock religiosity, an elaborate mythology of commandments to be followed, vows to be taken, confessions to be made (should a director violate one of the sacred principles, he is expected to make a public declaration of guilt) and blessings to be received. The Dogme directors referred to each other as brethren, like crusaders in quest of a spiritual goal. (For a more complete account of Dogme's beginnings, see Jesper Jargil's documentaries The Humiliated and The Purified, which, showing next Sunday, will conclude a monthlong von Trier retrospective at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.) From this perspective, Mr. von Trier comes along as a cinematic Martin Luther, nailing his 95 (!) theses to the door of the Hollywood cathedral. With this newfound purity would come a more immediate access to human realities and human emotions.

''It's important to me that things seem real and true,'' said Ms. Scherfig, director of Italian for Beginners.'' Her new film, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, is currently in theaters. ''That's what I really learned from Dogme,'' she said. ''If you can make something that's genuine, and where the people in the theater feel there is a true voice behind this, then you can obtain a quality that's hard to obtain otherwise.''

But the real and true, of course, is not a fixed notion, and as the first Dogme directors have continued their activities, most have drawn away from the original restrictions. Wilbur, for example, was shot on a soundstage in Copenhagen, where Ms. Scherfig built the interior of the bookstore that is the setting for much of the story. Mr. von Trier has gone on to the even more severe restrictions of Dogville, which does away with physical reality almost altogether. Its story unfolds on a soundstage, empty except for an outline of the town Dogville drawn on the floor, and a few absolutely essential props positioned here and there. ''It's not so easy to stylize things,'' Mr. von Trier said. ''It's easier to show a house like it is, because if you show only part of a house, you have to think long and hard about what part to show.''

In spite of the defections of its earliest proponents, Dogme95 seems likely to live on, in spirit if not in letter. It has proven, for one thing, to be a marvelous leveler, a way of allowing filmmakers from small countries (Denmark has a population of only 5.4 million) or Americans outside the studio system to have access to the same theaters as hegemonic Hollywood. Studio directors now speak wistfully of making Dogme-style movies, dreaming of the creative freedom that low budgets and low expectations can bring.

But Dogme's natural sense of regimentation and restraint will serve us all well in the coming digital cinema. Computer-generated settings and computer-animated characters are taking over Hollywood films, slowly sapping them of their life and spontaneity in ways that the Dogme directors of 1995 could not foresee. But as Mr. von Trier points out, computers are not the problem - their programmers are.

''We actually used computers quite a lot on Dogville, but the way I've used computers is in a way that you can see that they are computers,'' he said, referring to the overhead shots in Dogville, which are actually composites of some 150 digital video images sewn together by software.

''The computer is a great tool,'' Mr. von Trier continued, ''but the fantasies we are using it for are still quite limited. We are only doing with computers what we wished we were doing before we had them, like making gigantic armies and so on. So we are really just doing what we had no money to do before. But I am sure that this will change, so that we will use it for something more original.''

Dogme may have been abandoned by its parents, but the baby is doing quite well on its own. The shaky, handheld camera has become part of the standard vocabulary of both Hollywood and independent film, used reflexively as an indicator of ''authenticity'' by directors who have never heard of Dogme, or Denmark, for that matter.

Still, if it comes time to erect a memorial to Dogme95, Mr. Jensen, the producer, has an idea. ''When we started the Dogme movement, we had just bought five new camera tripods,'' he recalled. ''And we still have these five tripods, brand new, standing in the original boxes that came from the factory when we bought them. We'll give them to the Danish Film Museum to put on display.''

Copyright © 2004 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.