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“The crucial keyword for me is expansion”

Industry Report: Documentary

Niklas Engstrøm • Artistic director, CPH:DOX


The artistic director discusses the 20th-anniversary edition of the Danish documentary gathering, the notion of “performing reality” and his plans for expansion

Niklas Engstrøm • Artistic director, CPH:DOX
(© Emil Hartvig/CPH:DOX)

The Danish documentary film festival CPH:DOX, known for programming daring, genre- and medium-bending works, celebrates its 20th anniversary from 15-26 March. We met up with artistic director Niklas Engstrøm, who was appointed as part of the wider restructuring of the organisation. Engstrøm talks about said restructuring, his long-term vision and pushing the festival to explore the notion of “performing reality” in more depth.

Cineuropa: You were appointed as CPH:DOX’s artistic director in 2021 as part of a wider restructuring of the organisation. Has this restructuring wrapped?
Niklas Engstrøm
: I would say so, more or less. After I was appointed artistic director, we had to find a managing director, which ended up taking more time than expected, so my first year was a bit turbulent in many ways. Last year, the focus was on how to make a sustainable organisation for the future. That means financially sustainable, but also in terms of the working conditions for the people who are the lifeblood of our film festivals. In order to find this new balance, we had to make a difficult decision to close one of the three festivals under our management. We found that CPH:DOX and Buster are festivals with the biggest potential to make a mark on the world, so we decided to shut down CPH:PIX.

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You said you were not planning any revolutions when you took over from Tine Fischer. So what are the evolutions you have planned for the festival?
That's true: I said that I wasn't planning a revolution. Of course, that’s also because I've been part of the festival since we started it 20 years ago. But I'm not here to make the festival stand still at all. Overall, I would say that the crucial keyword for me is expansion – expanding how we meet the audiences and which audiences we meet. We are, of course, an international documentary film festival, but we are a festival in Denmark, and we want to reach as many people as possible in Denmark. And we want to expand nationwide. We started doing mini-festivals last year in 21 Danish municipalities; this year, we are expanding to 30 municipalities. It's very important for us that these mini-festivals are locally based and locally organised. We have a total of 98 municipalities, and I want to see CPH:DOX in each one of them.

The expansion also relates to the industry part, as I think it's really important to expand the market platform. The festival has grown in importance in a way that means that this year, for the first time ever, all of our main competition titles are world premieres. And it means attracting a number of high-profile decision makers. So, developing the festival as a market platform is important. And making it more inclusive is important. This year, we will start a new programme for young filmmakers, called Introduction. It's a full day. And we will be introducing them to the market and to our forum to facilitate networking.

My vision for CPH:DOX is for it to be the most important documentary festival in the world. That's the long-term goal. That's the level of ambition that I think we should have here because we've created something great, and we love documentary cinema, so we want to be as important as possible.

You have prepared a new visual identity for the 20th edition. What other novelties are in store?
We seized upon the 20th anniversary as a way to celebrate. It will be the most celebratory festival ever. We will have so many parties like never before, including a grand birthday party. Also, on the occasion of the anniversary, we are taking the time to look back and forwards in history – the theme of the anniversary edition is “Predicting the Past, Rewriting the Future”.

Regarding the novelties, I would say there is one thing that I think we will keep exploring in the future, and that's the idea of “performing reality”. We have created several programmes where performances take centre stage. So, for example, we've created a new podcast programme, exploring the sound-based documentary genre. In addition to hearing podcasts, the audience will have the chance to see the podcasts being performed live on stage. I would love to explore this also in terms of more traditional cinema – how to actually “perform cinema” even more. So here, again, I’m thinking about expanding – expanding on the notion of what documentary and what cinema is and can be.

CPH:DOX has been a trailblazer in programming innovative works, also in terms of the medium and what it can do. Which medium-disrupting projects would you like to highlight?
For me, some of the most interesting works at the moment are actually the ones that take the technology, the medium, and then combine it with some kind of performative element. So, for example, this year, we are presenting a new live VR performance by Charlie Shackleton as well as Zizi and Me, a unique, deep-fake drag double act using artificial intelligence and real-life drag, combining technology and performance. Nathan Fielder is also coming to Copenhagen to give a talk.

Given world events, and especially the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian films and filmmakers have been widely featured at festivals, which CPH:DOX is also doing. But you decided to include films about Russia, albeit not funded by the state or produced by Russian companies, such as Silent Sun of Russia and Queendom. Can you elaborate on this decision?
Yes, I think it's super important to still be able to see what’s going on in Russia. And also, to show people here in Europe that there are other people than Putin and his supporters in Russia. And that's what both Silent Sun of Russia and Queendom show.

When it comes to Ukrainian films, we acted quite fast last year. This year, I think we've tried to take the next step, not just showing Ukrainian films, but also trying to give them better options for bringing their movies into the world in the future. We've really looked very hard for Ukrainian film projects for our forum. We’ve also organised a new award specifically for Ukrainian filmmakers. I think it’s important to keep supporting the country’s film community.

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