Fifteen years of Dogma filmmaking

Filmmaking is difficult. It’s a tedious and expensive process demanding a lot of hard work and commitment from a host of people. There are countless examples of the world’s most renowned filmmakers collapsing under the demands of their projects. Every aspect of a film–from technical details to the structure of the storyline to how the final product is marketed–must be carefully considered and planned.

Like a house of cards, it takes very little to bring a film down–even one that has been painstakingly created. So, what, then, is the logic behind Dogme 95?

Fifteen years ago, Danish filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg wrote what would become known as the Dogme 95 Manifesto, which detailed the endemic problems encountered by directors in the modern film industry.

At the time, filmmaking was becoming increasingly accessible to interested and ambitious amateurs, due to technological advancements in equipment and distribution methods. Meanwhile, however, film-making had hit an artistic low, according to Von Trier and Vinterberg, who agreed on the necessity of combating “certain tendencies” that governed most contemporary films, such as plot-predictability and the over-accessorization of big-budget productions.

In response to what they saw as the increasing "superficiality" of most films, the Dogme 95 Manifesto called for a return to the essence of film-making, encouraging audiences and filmmakers alike to reevaluate both the effect and structure of the medium itself.

The manifesto was supplemented by a set of "rules" that filmmakers should adhere to in order that their work be recognized as a “Dogma" film. Known as the “Vow of Chastity,” the ten rules firmly rejected familiar features of the film-making process, such as tripods, lens filters, external light sources, and even sound effects.

Designed to remove any elements of traditional filmmaking that might alienate viewers from the narrative, the rules further prohibited the inclusion of superficial action–such as fight scenes and car chases–or over-elaborate set pieces.

Genre, according to the manifesto, was a lie–a fabrication aimed at fooling and manipulating the audience. As a result, the “Vows of Chastity” frowned upon the conveniences of genre, stating instead that a Dogma film must be set in the time and place in which the film was shot–one of the many methods by which the manifesto’s creators hoped to arrive at truth-through-cinema. 

Released in 1998, “Festen" ("The Celebration") was the first official Dogma film. Directed by Vinterberg, the film was a critical and commercial hit in Denmark, going on to win several awards worldwide, including the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

In telling the story of an elderly patriarch’s birthday celebration at which his son accuses him of sexual abuse, the film introduced the ambiguous nature of tragedy and comedy and a deeply cynical sense of humor that would become definitive features of the Dogme movement’s output. “Dogme #2: The Idiots” blurred the line between comedy and tragedy even more, with director Lars Von Trier often forcing humor out of extraordinarily uncomfortable situations.

Although not as successful as Vinterberg’s previous effort, “The Idiots” was still well-received, gaining notoriety for what would become a staple of Dogma films: scenes of un-simulated sexual intercourse.

Other notable Dogme 95 works include "Dogme #4: The King is Alive" by Kristian Levring, shot and set in the Namibian desert; and director Harmony Korine’s "Julien Donkey-Boy," the first non-European film made in accordance with the chastity vows. "Dogme #28: Elsker Dig for Evigt" was also an international hit, and will soon be remade into a Hollywood version directed by and starring Zach Braff of popular television sit-com "Scrubs."

The movement became ever more popular in the years that followed, propelled in part by the interest of several high-profile directors who either made their own attempts at Dogme filmmaking or adapted elements of its raw methodology. While many film critics denounced Dogme 95 as a media gimmick, the movement flourished in the final years of the 20th century, despite the painfully pretentious nature of much of the work done in its name.

The integrity of the Dogme Manifesto and its corresponding criteria were brought into question when both Vinterberg and Von Trier confessed to breaking their own rules while shooting the first two films. And in recent years, the two directors have moved on to other projects having–some might argue–never really produced a completely unadulterated Dogma film.

After having grown considerably in size, however, the movement eventually disintegrated some ten years after its inception. Nevertheless, filmmakers around the world have continued to produce independent films according to the “Vows of Chastity."

Throughout this week, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina will be celebrating 15 years of Dogma film with a series of film screenings.

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