Capitalist Realism at CPH:DOX
Marked by multiple tales of economic turmoil, this year’s CPH:DOX provided fuel for reflection on the various manifestations of capitalist crisis happening across the globe. It’s now commonly accepted that the world changed in 2008 following the financial crash, but the belief that neoliberal capitalism is the only feasible option remains deeply embedded in the collective unconscious. It’s what British writer, critic, and cultural theorist Mark Fisher described as “capitalist realism,” “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” This year, CPH:DOX demonstrated a desire to seek alternatives to the existing model, showcasing a series of works that aimed to disrupt expected forms of filmmaking and alter how we perceive our surroundings. It was an approach perhaps best observed in this year’s DOX:AWARD winner, Säsong (2019), by Swedish artist and director John Skoog.
A hybrid film about the cosmic interconnectedness of all things, and a living document of life in rural Sweden, Säsong is a film deeply rooted in its surroundings. Shot in Skoog’s hometown of Kvidinge, a village in northern Scania County, the film follows “Sent på Jorden” (2011), “Förår” (2013), and “Reduit” (2014) — a trilogy of conceptual shorts that explored the economic exploitation of the natural world. Lacking any form of cohesive narrative, Säsong begins with an anecdote about two stray cows that have abandoned their herd and retreated to the forest before moving on to a group of Polish workers traveling to Kvidinge by ferry for seasonal work. From here, the film expands into a broad study of this anomalous territory, where hierarchies and rigid power structures are rendered obsolete by a shared work ethos and neighborly support system.
Säsong translates as “season,” but the film’s English title, “Ridge,” suggests that Skoog’s protagonists live on the periphery of society, with the director using a combination of professional actors, family members, and friends to create a disorientating portrait of a society that shifts and changes with the seasons. Situated somewhere between video installation, ethnographic documentary, and abstract art piece, Skoog observes his subjects almost exclusively at twilight. Farmers celebrate the harvest, children play agricultural computer games, and young men drink to excess in the surrounding woodland, each vividly conveying the animalism and innocence at the heart of this rural region alongside the destructive nature of the human condition. Skoog’s playful, anarchic spirit and taste for the absurd only adds to the film’s mystical atmosphere, suggesting there’s more to these images than meets the eye. An attempt at examining a location for its narrative ability, Säsong feels like something akin to cinematic cartography, mapping this mysterious landscape over the course of one summer as the lives of tourists, seasonal workers, and residents become irrevocably entwined with the natural world.
The summer heat also plays a role in Brett Story’s The Hottest August (2019), a polyphonic portrait of a city and its inhabitants. Citing Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai (1963) as a major influence, the film is composed of interviews shot in Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs throughout the month of August 2017. The Canadian director previously focused on a single location in 2016 in her study of the social impact of the prison–industrial complex, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (2016), but here she expands her approach, using the city as a microcosm of American society. Beginning as an attempt to highlight the fears surrounding climate change, Story’s film eventually becomes a window into the collective consciousness of blue-collar America, as her leading question, “How are you feeling about the future?” gradually reveals the unsettling undercurrents bubbling below the surface. Retired policemen discuss how racism will never vanish, a Zumba teacher describes how gentrification has changed her neighborhood, while on the news a car plows into protestors during a White Nationalist march in Charlottesville. Elsewhere, discussions concerning the growing disparity between rich and poor, the threat of unemployment, and overpopulation all reveal the contradictions and complexities of a nation struggling to make sense of its current economic situation, with Story intelligently demonstrating how capitalism has left American society atomized and unable to think collectively. The cumulative effect of all this is oddly suggestive of Edward Hopper’s dioramas of American alienation, with Story presenting a city suspended between a yearning for the distant past and its fears for the future.
Another work of subtle national despair was Xiaoshuai Wang’s Chinese Portrait (2018), a narration-free, multi-paneled inquiry into the psychological impact of China’s transformation from an agrarian society to the rapidly modernized environment it is today. Completed months before his Berlin Silver Bear-winning drama So Long, My Son (2019), a heart-wrenching journey through some of the most turbulent events in recent Chinese history, Wang’s latest is another decade-spanning inquiry into the impact of China’s economic development. Composed of tableau shots taken between 2009 and 2019 in regions as varied as Xichuan County and the northwestern territory of Xinjiang, Wang’s latest film employs the tools of portrait photography to expose the lived reality of those communities left behind by the rapid pace of urbanization. Shot in the street or in other informal settings, Wang turns his camera’s gaze towards those pushed to the margins of society, with these portraits often of workers, villagers, or children captured in distinctive social environments. Offering a muted and subdued lament on life in a country that’s becoming increasingly unrecognizable, Wang’s subjects pose inertly for the camera, seemingly indifferent and unengaged, perhaps all too conscious of the social problems he seeks to portray. However, these faces only tell half the story, and although Wang’s carefully orchestrated compositions invite the viewer to consider the interior lives of his subjects, the length of these shots (on average 90 seconds each) allows the focus to shift towards the bustling urban landscapes and vanishing topographies that surround them. Giving the impression that these individuals are being left behind by an economy that values progress over people, this series of intimate depictions of life in modern China is a spellbinding snapshot of a time and place, both of which are rapidly disappearing.
During a week in which Ukraine moved closer to electing a stand-up comedian as president, the British Prime Minister Theresa May saw her Brexit deal rejected for a third time, and Donald Trump threatened to close the Mexican border, there was an unspoken sense of despair surrounding this year’s CPH:DOX. It’s hard not to see these political events as a reaction to the financial crash of 2008, and even though the festival wasn’t successful in dismantling the strongly felt belief that capitalism is an inescapable evil, it did hint at how we might begin to imagine a world without it.
The 2019 CPH:DOX took place between March 20 and March 31.