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Six fearless new documentaries you need to see

We checked out the CPH:DOX film festival in Copenhagen that had a strand curated by Anohni – here are our essential picks

CPH:DOX is a festival that challenges the boundaries of cinema, non-fiction and art fun and style. The festival returned after a prolonged gestation, skipping 2016 and shifting from its former dark November days under Tivoli’s hypnotic illuminations, to March’s Spring Equinox. The programme remained as deeply political, experimental and visionary as ever. A strong selection of films exploring the crisis in Syria emerged at the forefront of the award winners, while guest curator Anohni programmed a strand of films “to rediscover the potential of cinema and artistic expression and intervention in a time of crisis”, ranging from Jack Smith’s Normal Love, to William Basinski & James Elaine’s Disintegration Loop 1.1. The Kunsthal Charlottenborg – a beautiful historic remnant of royalty turned contemporary art palace – acted as the festival hub, hosting a VR Cinema, an exhibition on climate change and technology – Welcome Too Late –  and an impressive selection of conferences, talks and events. These are the imaginative voices and courageous risk-takers that stood out.

GRAY HOUSE

Austin Lynch and Matthew Booth won a special mention in the main competition with Gray House, which paints an expression of the human experience, from toil to tranquillity, with strikingly beautiful photography and haunting ambiguity. The film unfolds across different spaces –  an oil rig, a forest, a women’s prison – and shifts between interviews and meditative sequences with both actors and non-actors. The boxy, mundane structures inhabited by the oil rig workers are reminiscent of William Eggleston photographs, with their neon shiny surfaces reflecting slickly, while the skies merge like colour blends on a screen print. Alvin Lucier’s score pulsates with dissonance and harmony, at times rumbling with visceral power. Gray House resonates with the internal experience of time and the nature of isolation – in both its magnetism and embrace.

1996 LUCY AND THE CORPSES IN THE POOL

Winner of the NEXT:WAVE strand, an award for emerging filmmakers with a daring approach to form, the genesis and nature of this film is hard to pin down. On grainy VHS stock, two young women hang out and drift through their day together, meandering through caravans, striking up conversations with strangers, spending time at a gig. Snippets of phone conversations enter the narrative, is one of them selling life insurance? The loose conversational fluidity leads the narrative like a Richard Linklater film. There are evocative elements that feel like clues to the puzzle...a guy in a 1996 Lucky Strike t-shirt, bands playing indie-rock music that sounds like The Strokes and all other bands that sound like The Strokes. The film has the warmth of a long-buried home movie, that's been dug out and sculpted into a narrative of transient encounters and youthful fluidity.

BREXITANNIA

An Australian filmmaker waded into the mess of post-Brexit UK and weaved together a tapestry of voices, from the public and the ‘experts’. The film navigates the complexity of feelings surrounding the referendum with surprising nuance. Shot in black and white and divided into two chapters, Brexitannia challenges the simplistic, binary notions associated with the vote. A sense of fractured identity and desperation evolves into a narrative about how the system has tightened the screw so relentlessly, and divided and conquered with such success, that Brexit became an outlet for change – an ‘up yours’ to the politicians, fat cats and infuriatingly, an outlet for prejudices about immigrants. Director Timothy George Kelly explores the minefield of racism, ignorance, class, identity politics, elitism and neoliberalism with a strong, coherent flow of ideas. From the north, the south, Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland to Noam Chomsky and covering everything from sheep tags and automation to the EU regulations on cucumbers, Brexitannia, as Kelly comments, is a portrayal of “beautiful, ordinary people, full of contradictions.”

BUNCH OF KUNST

Director Christine Franz follows the Sleaford Mods over the course of a couple of years in which they reach new heights of success. The Nottingham duo, lyricist Jason Williamson and bandmate Andrew Fear, along with their manager, Steve Underwood – an independent record label owner and former bus driver – talk about their backgrounds and relationship to the music. With a sound reminiscent of Johnny Rotten's snarl and John Cooper Clarke’s brilliant way with words, Sleaford Mods are to many “the voice of Britain”. It’s clear from the raucous and impassioned reception at gigs that they provide a cathartic release for the anger felt by the people who are pounded by an unforgiving govbernment. The rave reviews pour in and major institutions express interest in showcasing them – but only with a remixed album minus the swearing – to which Fearn reacts, “Fuck the UK, we don’t need them, they’re on their fucking knees anyway.” Bunch of Kunst is an intimate and frank insight into the anxieties and pressures that parallel their growing success – and their slight bewilderment – as they rise from local pubs to Glastonbury.

CITY OF GHOSTS

A group of college student friends in Raqqa found themselves the targets of Isis after their journalism revealed the atrocities that were taking place in their hometown. Director Matthew Heineman threads together their transformation from regular guys into citizen journalists after Isis took advantage of the power vacuum that lingered after the fall of the Assad regime. Their journalism collective, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, exposed the public executions and horrific destruction wreaked by Isis. Isis began to focus their attention on them, arresting, torturing and murdering members of their group and close family. Moving from safehouse to safehouse in different countries, they are also challenged by violent backlash from ignorant anti-migrant nationalists. City of Ghosts is an important platform for the voices of RBSS to be heard by the uninformed masses, and is ultimately their film.

KARL MARX CITY

Co-director Petra Epperlein revisits her perception of her happy childhood in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and searches for the truth about her father’s suicide in the late 90s. Using an anonymous letter her father received that accused him of being a Stasi informant as a starting point, Epperlein investigates the legacy of the GDR and how the state fostered a sense of distrust – which is frankly not dissimilar to the climate of fear in the UK right now. The film explores the rising suicide rate of men following the fall of the wall, and the psychological games played by the Stasi against anyone deemed a political detractor. Creating a subtle obscurity around ownership of the story, the narrative slips between Petra’s first-person perspective, and a disconnected female voice that narrates Petra’s story. Karl Marx City raises questions about our oblivious sharing of private information, and how information can be gathered and shaped to portray anyone, in any which way.