What to watch at CPH:DOX documentary festival

From 13-24 March, Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival brings into focus the most important questions and issues of our time – from the individually existential to the global and systemic. Read on to discover our pick of unmissable festival highlights.

CPH:DOX, Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival, is one of the biggest documentary film festivals in the world.

The 2024 edition will run from March 13 to March 24, offering audiences in Copenhagen a rich opportunity to explore its ambitious and horizon-broadening programme of documentary films from all over the world.

Taken together, CPH:DOX’s films bring into focus the most important questions and issues of our time – from the individually existential to the global and systemic.

Read on to discover our pick of unmissable festival highlights, as well as top recommendations from the festival organisers themselves.

The Copenhagen Post recommends

As the tide comes in
The 27 residents on the tiny Danish Wadden Sea island of Mandø, are used to severe weather and flooding. Climate change has only made things worse and now it poses a serious existential threat to the eight km2 island. However, its last farmer, Gregers, whose family has lived there for eight generations, hasn’t given up in the face of the impending catastrophe. He refuses to build a life elsewhere and instead hopes to find a wife to manage the farm with him.

As a storm is slowly approaching, Gregers and his faithful dog inspect the obsolete dikes that protect his beloved island. In the meantime, Mie blows out the candles of her 100th-year birthday cake, Ellen and Ingeborg complain about the moon disease they suffer from, birdwatcher Niels laments about the rare birds that don’t come to the island anymore, and tourist guide Preben tells stories about past deadly floods to summer visitors. Despite the new threats from the rising sea, today’s current generation holds on steadfastly to their little part of the world.

The portrait of this microcosm is accompanied by masterfully crafted shots of the distinctive landscape, shifting skies, and seas that change with the wind. In a sense, the grim fate of these islanders, presented in drily humorous situations, will affect us all.

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Limits of Europe
An asparagus farm in Germany, a hotel in Ireland and a retirement home in France. Prominent Czech journalist Saša Uhlová has taken two years out of her schedule to go undercover with a hidden camera in the European cheap labour market, where low-wage Eastern European workers live in bunk beds and toil from dawn to dusk in Western societies. And it is not a part-time project Saša has embarked on.

With body and soul, and with dedication and empathy for her new colleagues, she literally works her way into social inequality to document its consequences. She leaves her husband, her four children and her seriously ill father at home in the Czech Republic without the opportunity to be home for a visit – just like the millions of other invisible Eastern workers who keep the wheels turning in the West. But this uncompromising attitude comes at a personal cost. ‘The Limits of Europe’ is a courageous and unsentimental film that strikes a blow for human dignity across borders.

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Democracy noir
Few politicians in the 21st century have been as corrupt and adept at undermining democracy as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Orbán is a hero to his country’s Christian conservative population, and a role model for the right-wing political movement in Europe and for Donald Trump in the US. Orbán takes careful, methodical steps to dismantle Hungarian democratic institutions while maintaining his popularity with a majority of citizens.

Oscar-nominated director Connie Field follows three courageous women – opposition politician Timea, journalist Babett and nurse Nikoletta (Niko) – who fight tirelessly to expose the lies and corruption embedded in Orbán’s government. But they face a well-funded and sophisticated opposition in Orbán’s ultra-conservative Fidesz party, which has a strong influence on voters and has already changed key democratic constitutional laws to further cement one-party rule. 

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Once upon a time in a forest
Ida and Minka share a boundless love for the Finnish forests and a deep respect for nature. But not everyone agrees. The two young environmentalists demonstrate against deforestation and eventually win a seat at the table with the older, bearded men that represent the powerful giants of the timber industry. But one thing is the industry, another thing entirely is to convince your own grandfather, who has spent a lifetime clearing and planting trees, that wild nature means everything to biodiversity and to the future of the planet. The gaps between generations are deep, the climate fight is also a cultural struggle.

Fortunately, Finnish filmmaker Virpi Suutari has an eye for more than bitter conflicts and hard fronts, and with commendable humanity (and a dose of understated humour) she has created that great film about nature, the future and the climate that the world has been waiting for – nothing less. And in the spirit of its young activists, it is also a beautiful and thoughtful tribute to nature itself, with tadpoles and flying squirrels as witnesses to the great human drama.

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The sky above Zenica
From a distance, it looks as if one of the seven gates of hell has opened in the middle of Zenica, a medium-sized town about 50 kilometres northwest of Sarajevo. However, the fact that it is an enormous steel plant spewing its toxic smoke over Zenica, making it one of the three most polluted cities in the world, does not make the situation much better for its more than 100,000 inhabitants. And now they have had enough. In a common fight for a sustainable future, they have formed the organisation Eko Forum.

But like a Greek tragedy, the conflict of interests is bigger than everyone involved. The local politicians need to deliver jobs to get re-elected, while the EU co-finances both the steel production and the new bicycle lanes which ironically are part of a marketing campaign to brand Zenica as a ‘Green City Project’. The dragon has many faces, but the city’s citizens are not about to give up. Zlatko Pranjic and Nanna Frank Møller’s film uncovers in a sober and humane way the complex mechanisms that stand in the way of a sustainable future all over the world, told through the eyes of the people living in the consequences of the present.

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Night of nights
A nocturnal and semi-surrealistic science fiction portrait of life in two Asian megacities after 2020, shot at night with an hypnotic intensity and with the lens pointing to the future.

The country is plunged into darkness. The abandoned city is like another planet. Lonely figures move through the streets like shadows in a theatre. We are in two Asian megacities in the surreal time after 2020. ‘Night of Nights’ takes place at night, and the images fill the screen with an hypnotic intensity and documents the radically changed reality that the people in the megacities of the world suddenly found themselves in. The urban landscapes are illuminated by yellowish neon and the concept of home has lost its familiar meaning. An endless pedestrian tunnel has become a mini-community of igloo tents, where people stranded in the harsh restrictions have set up camp while waiting to move on. But when the restrictions are lifted, everything is changed forever.

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Deep in the Brazilian favelas, a secret community of men are planning their next illegal action. They are ‘baloeiros’ – balloon builders. This group of tattooed, rugged men love balloons and can spend years gluing brightly coloured tissue paper together to create giant hot air balloons the size of apartment blocks(!) that can paint the sky in incredible colours and portray the likes of 2pac and Pelé. Different groups of baloeiros compete against each other to make the most beautiful, biggest and most spectacular balloons. Meanwhile, they themselves are hunted by police and bounty hunters, as the authorities consider them dangerous and criminal.

The young Danish/Spanish filmmaker Sissel Dargis Morell has spent several years gaining the trust of the Brazilian balloon gangs and has created an action-packed film alternating between fast-paced car chases, balloon action and scenes from the secret workshops. ‘Balomania’ is an incredible story about a secret brotherhood on the margins of society, where the street sweeper can be king for a day and where the dream of freedom takes wings at last.

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The walk
In her second feature film, Macedonian Tamara Kotevska, who directed the Oscar-nominated ‘Honeyland’, begins a long journey from the Syrian border to Turkey and travels all the way up through Europe to the English Channel. Her camera follows two nine-year-old girls who fled Aleppo and the war in Syria in search of a new home. Asil is trapped in Turkey, orphaned, without a passport, yet full of hope. Amal is also a refugee, but thanks to her giant boots, she can travel the world across borders and nothing can stop her. Not even the hateful Christian fanatics she encounters along the way. For Amal, which means hope in Arabic, is a 3.5 metre tall puppet. Her long legs take her through vast landscapes and small villages. She breathes the trees, feels the wings of butterflies, is greeted with music and joy and befriends children in a refugee camp, young migrants sleeping under bridges and the Pope himself. But which road leads home when you’re a refugee child?

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Life and other problems
When Marius the giraffe was euthanised by the Copenhagen Zoo 10 years ago, the news went viral from Hollywood to Chechnya. But it was also the first domino to fall in the sprawling forest of existential questions Max Kestner asks himself (and us) in his new and wonderfully adventurous film. What is life? Does consciousness exist? Where does love come from? And last but not least: How does it all fit together – like, really?

With curiosity and an open mind, Kestner embarks on a philosophical journey around the world to find answers to his questions. Scientists such as Charles Foster and Eske Willerslev contribute, and even though each question spawns to three new ones, you nevertheless learn more about the big and small connections of the universe along the way. What could have ended up as the most pretentious film of all time has instead become posibly the most fun, creative and completely unpredictable experience of the year. Because even though the scale is cosmic, Max Kestner’s attention is always on the curious detail.

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A feminist who sneaks out of the house dressed as a man and a filmmaker who uses his camera as a weapon. Milo and Khalili are two young Iraqis who risk their lives for freedom and the future in an unusual and cinematic film about life in Baghdad.

After 20 years of war in Iraq, most people might associate the country with chaos. ‘Immortals’ gives us a rare and cinematic experience of what it’s actually like to live in Baghdad as a young person and make a life for yourself in the Middle Eastern metropolis – or at least try to. Milo is a strong-willed feminist who discovers she can roam freely around the city by dressing in her brother’s clothes, while stubbornly trying to find a job and maintain a close relationship with her best friend. And Khalili is a young and ambitious filmmaker who realises that the camera is the most powerful weapon of all when risking his life in street battles. However, ‘Immortals’ is not content to simply observe the small and big struggles of two young Iraqis in a country where 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25.

With the labyrinthine city as a backdrop, the film moves into a subjective space where they stage their experiences with the creative freedom that comes with finally being able to tell their own story.

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Fighting Demons
25-year-old Mikkel is trying to find his way in life after years of childhood sexual abuse have cast a heavy darkness over him. Suffering from PTSD and low self-esteem, he struggles every day to keep himself together. Through an unusual friendship and a film project, Mikkel works his way out of the darkness and finds the strength to overcome his inner demons. He comes to understand that there is no way to overestimate the importance of being listened to, being seen for who you are, and being able to look yourself in the mirror and know that you are good enough.

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CPH:DOX recommends

Stray Bodies
One woman travels from Malta to Italy to have an abortion. At the same time, another woman is travelling from Italy to Greece to receive IVF treatment in the hope of becoming pregnant. Their situations are very different, but they are connected by strict legislation that forces them to seek help outside their home country. The women are two of the many travellers across Europe’s borders, where religion and politics often have more say over your own body than you do. The dream destination is not beaches and fancy cafés, but the right to decide for themselves.

‘Stray Bodies’ maps the continent’s many contradictions, from sperm donation to euthanasia, and thoroughly raises the big existential questions about life and death. But in an unexpectedly fresh and original way, with great cinematic exuberance.

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G – 21 scenes from Gottsunda
Gottsunda, Sweden. A suburb of Uppsala and one of Sweden’s most dangerous places. Drugs, crime, gangs and violence are commonplace. But Gottsunda is also the childhood home of the film’s director and protagonist, Loran Batti. While he is on his way out and has found a different path, his childhood friends have spiralled further and further into the underworld. With confidential access to the tough criminal underworld, he takes us behind the media’s portrayal of gang violence in Sweden. But it’s not without a certain ambivalence for Loran. A friend turns himself in at the police station, a car is set on fire, drugs are in the glove compartment, elephant hats and weapons are always within reach. Not everyone can be Zlatan Ibrahimović, so what are the rest to do?

‘G – 21 scenes from Gottsunda’ is an unfiltered look into the ghetto and gang problems of the Swedish suburbs. Told from the inside with familiarity and love for his childhood friends. A brotherhood that runs so deep that the fear of the news that a friend is dead is always just a phone call away.

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Blueberry Dreams
Led by the good-hearted father Soso, a family of four starts a blueberry farm to secure their future together. But with a home in northern Georgia, their village is close to the troubled border with the Russian-backed region of Abkhazia, where new conflicts have been rumbling for 30 years.

Soso is a retired engineer, but together with his wife Nino and their sons Giorgi and Lazare, he throws himself into the ‘Plant the Future’ programme set up by the Georgian authorities to stabilise the area. Nino is haunted by memories of the war and dreams of her children experiencing the world, while Soso wants to maintain their connection to the land. But Giorgi and Lazare long for a different future, immersing themselves in anime and dreaming of visiting Japan. In the midst of their daily lives, the family navigates between hardship, joy and contemplation of a different future. 

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Look Into my Eyes
Whether you’re a believer or not, you will experience the little hairs rise, the tears well up and a smile break through in ‘Look Into My Eyes’. We meet seven very different people from New York who have one thing in common: they’re psychic. Or at least they believe themselves to be, and their clients turn to them to connect with their deceased loved ones.

In simple and focused scenes, Lana Wilson (director of the Taylor Swift film ‘Miss Americana’) confronts us with our possible scepticism, but still leaves the door open to the possibility that there is something to it. Gradually, we also get to know the seven clairvoyant mediums. It turns out that they are ordinary people with an extraordinary talent, and that they themselves often have a wound or two on their soul. And perhaps the most important thing is not whether they are actually right, but how we can reach each other and feel better on both sides of the crystal ball? An intelligent and empathetic tour of the kaleidoscopic universe that is our inner life.

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Teaches of Peaches
‘Fuck the Pain Away’ was a musical breakthrough in the early 2000s and an inevitable hit in urban nightlife. A song that celebrates female sexual liberation and modern body positivism with a simple electronic beat and irresistible lyrics. Behind the track was Canadian musician and performance artist Merrill Nisker, better known as Peaches. Since then, pop culture has tried to catch up with the radical body and gender politics she practised, but no one has caught up with Peaches.

With witty and sharp interviews, colourful concert footage and almost prophetic archive material, ‘Teaches of Peaches’ tells the story of the uncompromising singer and artist. From her punk youth in Berlin to a messy apartment in Canada, where her flatmate Feist sings backing vocals on her debut album, and on to the preparations for the anniversary tour she has decided to embark on to once again slap the locked structures of society in the face. 

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Gaucho Gaucho
In the endless plains and desolate mountains of Argentina live the so-called gauchos. Cowboys and cowgirls dressed in beautiful uniforms and with an almost spiritual connection to their horses and the land they ride on. They drink mate, race, gallop and lasso as their ancestors have always done. Out of time, but certainly not out of place. Out here among cacti and dusty cornfields, the gauchos keep the traditions of the past alive.

The directing duo behind the hit film ‘The Truffle Hunters’ have an unrivalled eye for the deep relationship between people, animals and the picturesque land they share. In crystal clear and stunningly beautiful black and white images that capture every grain of desert dust, ‘Gaucho Gaucho’ is not only one of the most beautiful films of the year. It is also a true Argentine Western with understated humour and a melancholic touch of Old World charm in a time of slow, but certain change.

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Stephen Giddings is in his late 20s. He lives in Liverpool, is a recovering drug addict and an actor. He is given an emotionally demanding challenge: to ‘become’ the fictional character of an obsessed gambler in a crime thriller inspired by the 1901 film ‘Arrest of Goudie’, recognized as the first reconstruction of a real-life crime story filmed on the actual locations in the city.

‘Stephen’ is a participatory work created in close collaboration with Stephen and the other participants, both professionals and amateurs. But even though it is a multi-layered hybrid film, something very real is at stake for everyone involved – not least Stephen himself, who grew up in a violent environment of abuse that he is now struggling to escape. Director Melanie Manchot is a visual artist who has previously worked with reconstructions and performance in other media. Her first feature film brings these experiences together in a cohesive, meaningful and thought-provoking form. 

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Food Inc. 2
Organic food is taking up more and more space on supermarket shelves and local vegetable markets are popping up in more and more neighbourhoods. But there are also more and more people on the planet, and 15 years after the Oscar-nominated mega hit ‘Food Inc.’, it turns out that the modern food industry still needs a thorough overhaul. This is exactly what we get here, and you don’t need to have seen the first film to understand just what an incredible impact agriculture and the food industry has not only on what we eat, but on the world around us.

Directing duo Melissa Robledo and Robert Kenner uncover everything from monopolisation, lobbying and the logic of capitalism to what exactly happens in your brain when you eat a McDonald’s burger. But they also look at possible solutions and what the kitchen of the future might look like. 

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Black Box Diaries
Shiori Ito is a brave woman with big ambitions. As a journalist, she covers the Washington beat for one of Japan’s biggest newspapers, but when her older boss sexually assaults her after a night out, everything changes. Where many others in the patriarchal Japanese culture would shrug off the assault and turn the trauma inward, she chooses to launch a year-long investigation that ends in a high-profile trial. But opposition from all sides is fierce, and it becomes a tough and gruelling battle for Shiori. Her boss – a close friend of the president – represents an entire system that is hierarchical in a way that is very different from what we know in the West, and the laws have not been updated in over a hundred years.

But Shiori also gets help from unexpected quarters, and in two scenes where good people support her simply because it’s the right thing to do, you can’t help but share her emotions. The film is Shiori’s diary of an unimaginably hard and lonely struggle to improve women’s rights and bring a conservative culture into the 21st century.

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Sting Like a Bee
In the Trigno Valley in central Italy, the young people cultivate their own home-styled subculture around the Piaggio Ape three-wheeled moped. Ape means bee in Italian, and over the course of a summer, the film crew buzzes around the teenagers and starts casting them for a film about their own lives. Slowly, reality begins to merge with fiction, allowing the Italian youths to dream and become the voices of their own lives, where unity, love, sexuality – and of course, Piaggio Ape – take centre stage.

In beautiful images shot on analogue film, ‘Sting like a Bee’ evolves into a warm, loving and souped-up study of a group of young daydreamers trapped in an Italian nowhere land, who find freedom and a common sanctuary in their passion for the three-wheeled moped. A film that hovers somewhere between ‘Pimp My Ride’ and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

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