From Dogme 95 to DV: “Don’t Try This at Home” (2006) — or at least not in the States

 

Theatrical Poster for DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME - Fair Use asserted

Theatrical Poster for DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME – Fair Use asserted

Under the direction of Matthias Maaß, Don’t Try This At Home: From Dogma to Dogville (2006) becomes as much the narrative of the unfolding of the Dogme 95 movement as it is the story of the Mini DV revolution of the late 1990’s. This film is thought-provoking viewing for anyone involved in the world of contemporary independent filmmaking in any capacity. Indie filmmakers and fans alike should watch this film while considering how the status and conditions of the indie film world have changed and how they have remained the same in the almost ten years since this documentary was released.

Dogme 95 was initially a manifesto written by Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg and, later, a filmmaking movement (the Dogme 95 Collective or the Dogme Brethren) that evolved over the ensuing ten years. In part, it was a reaction against certain aspects of the dominant Hollywood aesthetic. It encouraged independent filmmaking that replaces the principles that underlie large-budget productions and expensive high-tech post-production with certain cinematic aesthetic and technical values, as laid out in the “Vow of Chastity” that formed the centerpiece of the manifesto:

  1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
  2. 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.)
  3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
  4. 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).
  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now).
  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
  9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
  10. The director must not be credited.

A series of Dogme films were made by various filmmakers allied with the movement; the extent to which the principles were followed varied. Indeed, von Trier and Vinterberg did not intend the “Vow of Chastity” to be a prescription to be followed to the letter, but rather a stimulus to innovative, realistic filmmaking. In this spirit,  Maaß focuses not on directors, but instead on three major cinematographers of the period: Anthony Dod Mantle, Robby Müller, and Benedict Neuenfels.

Mantle’s work spans a broad range of cinematic approaches, beginning with The Feast and moving into new territory with films like 28 Days Later (2002) and Dogville (2003). Despite the anti-Hollywood stance of Dogme 95, his cinematography for Slumdog Millionaire (2008) won him an Oscar for “Best Achievement in Cinematography” in 2009.

The story arc of Müller’s career likewise moved between negative to positive poles with regards to aesthetics and film politics. He created a scandal with Breaking the Waves, yet his artistic camera techniques worked equally well in the movies of writer-directors Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders and in more mainstream ventures, such as Barfly (1987; written by Charles Bukowski, directed by Barbet Schroeder, and starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway). He made his debut feature film, My Brother Tom, with an amateur camera, a technique which he reprised in his subsequent films (such as Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People).

Neuenfels represents most strongly the innovation that was sparked by Dogme 95. His quest for new artistic methods and approaches led to controversy (The Rock) as well as recognition from traditional sources. His work was considered for a Golden Bear at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival and won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film at the 2008 Academy Awards (The Counterfeiters).

All three DPs discuss the benefits and limitations of digital video (DV) technology — as it existed in the mid-2000s — for professionals shooting films. Although the commentary is at times abstruse, it contains an interesting dialectic between the concepts of “amateur” and “professional” with regard to the use of DV. On the one hand, these cinematographers sometimes consciously aimed for an “amateur” feel in some aspects of their work. On the other hand, they abhor making a film that appears to be the work of a non-professional. However, they disagree on whether an amateur could make a good movie. Interestingly, they talk about using “off the shelf” technology, but later in the film reveal that extensive technical modifications to such gear need to be made in order to be able to use it in a professional setting.

The most fascinating part of this film for me is its implications for independent filmmaking. DV technology allows filmmakers to shoot on a much lower budget, as it eliminates both the expense and logistics of using traditional 16 or 35 mm. film equipment. Moreover, the size of the crew needed for DV work is drastically smaller than that used on a traditional shoot, which also decreases the production costs as well as the time needed to complete principal photography. Moreover, more takes of a scene can be shot with DV than with film, due to the cost differential. The three DPs also note potential negatives, mostly having to do with aesthetic considerations such image quality, but also in the human realm, such as laying off close friends and colleagues who are no longer needed for a DV shoot. Moving away from the binary question of using traditional film stock vs. DV, there is also discussion of combining shots from different types of cameras in a single film project.

Due to the rapid progress of digital video technology since this documentary was made, some of the discussion that takes place in it is of more value as a history of a revolution in cinema aesthetics than as a technical manual for prospective independent digital videographers. However, it is interesting that the film politics discussed in the movie are relevant to contemporary filmmaking. How else to explain the “night and day” reaction of audiences in different regions of the globe to the work of filmmakers like Si Horrocks, who shot Third Contact with off-the-shelf digital video gear? The geographical differential response to this film — critical acclaim and positive viewer responses in Germany and the UK versus relative apathy on the part of both critics and moviegoers in North America — was not due to chance. In the United States, Hollywood makes and viewers watch movies — film projects selected for production on the strength of their potential for return on invested capital. In the UK and Europe, films produced by indigenous filmmakers tend towards the cinema end of the spectrum — film projects selected for production on the strength of their aesthetic potential.

This is not to say that Hollywood does not consider artistic merit and that production companies in the UK and Europe do not want to make money. However, it does explain why it is difficult to see a film from the UK and Europe in U.S. movie theaters. It also explains why there are so many indie film projects (from the U.S. as well as many other nations) on Indiegogo and Kickstarter, as well as other, newer crowdfunding platforms (such as Jump the Cut). As always, I again wonder why Westerners (particularly in the U.S.) persist in their dichotomous (“either/or”) thinking. Can films that promise both artistic relevance and box office receipts be conceived of, supported, funded, made, and appreciated by Americans? I fear that this question will seem naive to some and (even more frightening) incomprehensible to others.