Mads Mikkelsen

CPH:DOX – A Darling of a Documentary Film Festival

cph dox long bannerVELKOMMENN! This is CPH:DOX, the most exciting documentary film festival in the world!

As the most glamorous and talked-about event in Copenhagen  in the month of November, CPH:DOX attracts industry professionals and media worldwide and, most interestingly, regular Danish folk from all over the country who take time off work  to enjoy the 10-day festival. With so many intriguing screenings and original events, such as the impressive Opening Gala at the surreal Koncerthuset, a trip to a Swedish nuclear power plant, and gourmet film debates in the very popular category FOOD ON FILM, it is no wonder!

And because 2013 marked a new record attendance,  the festival team had to extend the festival by three days due to public demand, which is rather unique and  unheard of!Well done, CPH:DOX!

Every year the festival screens over 200 documentaries, all of which represent the most current and interesting trends in the documentary arena. But CPH:DOX stands for much more than just the film festival. Festival Programmer Mads Mikkelsen tells us what makes CPH:DOX so special.

Inside CPH:DOX with Festival Programmer MADS MIKKELSEN. 

This interview was taken on November 8, 2013 at the Danish Film Institute in Copenhagen.

Dana: What is your role within the festival and what does it entail?

Mads-Mikkelsen cph dox

CPH:DOX Festival Programmer MADS MIKKELSEN

Mads: I’m a programmer for CPH:DOX and this is my 6th festival, the festival started in 2003, this year is the 11th edition. We have two programmers for the festival and also our Festival Director, Tina, who is our artistic director as well. She is very involved in the selection process. We see loads and loads of films, this year we got 2,700 films, not all of them are feature length, some are shorts but it’s still 15 times more films than we could show here so selections are the core of what we do. We also discuss how to create a festival where the films are placed in a meaningful context. Of course the films are singular works but they are also in dialogue with the context they are placed in. We have a structure at the festival where we can place films in a way where they communicate with each other, where there is a chemistry in the selection, not just a line-up of singular films.

Dana: Could you tell me more about the various categories, you have TOP DOX for instance…

Mads: We have four international competitions, we have the International Main Competition, we have a new section for Journalistic Films, which we launched this year, we have a competition for Nordic Films from the Scandinavian countries. And something that is special for a documentary film festival, we have a competition for Artists’ Films, which is not the same as experimental films. Experimental film has a long and well-documented history. The kind of films that we show are commissions from art galleries, biennales, art institutions. We find these films in these places, it’s not work that is produced with the cinema as such as the space for these types of films, which makes it very interesting to import them into a film context. These films are made by contemporary visual artists, and a lot of them work with other media, which makes it very interesting when they move to film.

Dana: Are there films that you actively seek to attract into the festival or are you just looking at submissions?

Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film

Mads: We do a lot of research, a lot of scouting. We have a rather large network of friends and contacts around the world and they recommend us things and vice-versa. We are interested not only in films that are already finished but also films that are coming. We try to map out what is new each year, the most exciting and innovative films.

Dana: Out of all the films you are screening this year, what percentage is constituted by films that you tried to attract into the festival as opposed to those that were submitted?

Mads: Maybe half and half, I’m not entirely sure because it also depends on which section you look at. If you look at competitions, it’s almost 100% stuff that we find, whereas for the sections that are more of a survey of this year’s best and more popular films, a lot of those are films that are simply out there and we look at them and we discuss how we could create a better, more diverse selection that represents the best films made this year. And we also have a thematic context, zeitgeist films, for instance this year we invited the Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei and the American artist duo The Yes Men to curate a programme of 20 films, some of them are from the 1920s, 30s, all historical films…

Dana: Do you work very closely with the festival producer?

Mads: Yes, we are 10 to 12 regular full-time people working here, a lot of invaluable interns and 200 volunteers. So there’s a lot of people involved, we put a lot of effort into logistics and managing the festival and making sure that everything is planned in detail. For this purpose we work very closely with our festival producer and her team but they are very self-going, self-sustaining…

cph dox team

Dana: Do all films have a Q&A, do you invite all the filmmakers to attend?

Mads: We invite a lot of filmmakers to attend, we don’t have the means to invite everyone, we try to find funding for as many as we can but because our budget is limited we made it a priority to invite those filmmakers whose films are premiering at the festival. Yesterday was the first day of the festival but a lot of filmmakers are coming for the industry days, which is from Tuesday next week until Friday-Saturday. We want them to not only be present for the screenings but also to engage with the whole international community that is here during the festival.

Dana: You’re referring to CPH:Forum which has a programme that looks very interesting. Will you tell me more about it?

Mads: This is a finance and coproduction forum that was launched in 2007.  It’s a platform where we invite film professionals to come, filmmakers with new film projects. We select around 25 projects and they pitch their new ideas to producers and financiers. And also we create a lot of seminars and other activities around the Forum and around the festival as such, to create a platform whereby people can engage in dialogue and talk about films, exchange ideas and contacts. It is unusual for a documentary film festival to have a Forum where one third of the selection are art projects and one third are films that are a hybrid form between documentary and narrative, fiction and visual art and other art forms. So it’s something that we built up, all the different departments of the festival are not like satellites orbiting around the same planet but it’s more connected and the different departments support each other.

Dana: The filmmakers who are invited to participate in the Forum, are they filmmakers who screened their films at CPH:DOX in previous years or can anyone apply? 

Mads: Not all of them, yes anyone can apply, there’s an open call for entries. The final line-up is made up of young filmmakers, up and coming filmmakers but also established filmmakers.

Dana: What are the objectives for the festival in the future, do you plan to develop and diversify it further?

Mads: We are diversifying very much all the time, not only in content but in the way that we do the festival. What we want to do is play around with the concept of what a film festival is and what it could be. This year we launched the Transmedia Platform, we launched the two-day conference where we invite artists, politicians, tech people, scholars, normal people as well. The idea is based on exchange between people with different professional backgrounds, different perspectives.We also want people to be inspired to take some chances on the types of films that they see. Speaking as a programmer, one of the most exciting things about a film festival is to discover new films, new artists, new work, things that you just didn’t expect…

Tim's Vermeer

Tim’s Vermeer

Dana: How does CPH:DOX compare to other documentary film festivals, with IDFA for instance?

Mads: The festival that we created is based around the idea of the filmmaker as an artist, we like films with a personal signature and vision, and films that are not limited to a traditional concept of what a documentary film is. What I mean by traditional is a film that is observing events from a distance without intervening into them. The type of films that we have been supporting and promoting since day one are the films that expand on the notion of the documentary, they work in the hybrid field between documentary and fiction and visual art and other art forms. And this is what built up the profile of the festival, people expect this from CPH:DOX now, documentaries that challenge the ways that film can engage with the real as well as films that constitute a quality selection of the year’s bigger and more immediately appealing films. But I think it is important to take chances, to simply go and see something that you never heard about…

Dana: A film festival obviously reflects the taste of the festival programmers and the artistic director, you can’t help selecting the films that appeal to you. Do you agree?

Mads: Yes and I think it should. Sometimes it is debated if programmers are the gate-keepers, excluding work and so on. I’d personally much rather go to a film festival that reflects a sort of conscious selection process, clear curatorial criteria, a sort of well thought-out selection of films, rather than a bunch of films that are simply lined-up, one next to the other.[…] It’s also a matter of building up a festival where the actual selection of a film is supportive of the film, where we know that we have a meaningful context or frame that we can put the film in, instead of simply inviting a film and letting it stand alone.The selection process does not stop the minute that you select a film, there’s an after where you work with the film, you try to promote it and explain it to an audience and to build up a space where you can have a discourse.

suitcase of love and shame

Suitcase of Love and Shame

Dana: The films need to resonate with each other, yes, but maybe you could have a weird category where you include all kinds of weird films…

Mads: Oh we have a lot of those!(laughing)…If you look in the New Vision section and in the Artists Competition, a lot of people would think this is way out, it’s not documentary. But it is a place to go and see what contemporary cinema can be. We really try to be a contemporary festival, of course we have a strong historical line in the festival. The films that we show also reflect on past achievements in cinema. But we try to create a space where we screen as many contemporary pieces, where the artists are autonomous and independent voices.

nan goldin

Nan Goldin – I Remember Your Face

Dana: Before working for this festival, did you work for other film festivals, or in terms of education…

Mads: I was arranging film clubs, a lot of them in Copenhagen. I was studying film at university, here and in Stockholm and working…And on the side arranging various film clubs, one for underground films, one strictly for celluloid films, one where we had lectures, one where we screened documentaries.

Dana: So these were your personal projects…

Mads: Yes, personal stuff. Some I did alone and some with friends. And then when the festival was launched in 2003, I was following it […] I didn’t travel to festivals back then but it was still my favourite festival, and this was for a reason, because this is where I discovered the most exciting films, this is where I first saw the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul…

Dana: Congratulations on pronouncing his name, I never get it right…

Mads:(laughing)…And that sense of excitement and discovery was something I wasn’t really used to at that time, I think it made me realise how a festival works. A film club is an ideal way to screen films but a film festival has something of the magic and excitement of so many people that are coming and having these experiences together […]. Then I  started to work as an associate programmer in 2008 and writing a lot of the programme notes, and in 2009 I was hired as a programmer full-time. But I sometimes programme for other festivals and institutions and I curate a monthly night in the Cinemateket where we screen underground, cult films, everything from 16mm to 35mm. So I didn’t move in the direction of wanting to work for a film festival.You don’t end up working for a film festival unless you participate in the local film culture and try to add something to it.

Dana: What are your favourite documentaries in the festival this year?

Mads: Every time people ask me that I say Bloody Beans, an Algerian film in our main competition, which I’m so excited about! I’m really looking forward to meet the director. The films that excite me the most are the ones that suggest a new path or a fresh idea. The best films are the ones that when you leave the cinema you’re a little changed, the power to change you…

Bloody Beans still

Bloody Beans

Dana: Change us for the better I hope!

Mads: Probably most films change us for the worse!(laughing)But this one hopefully will change people for the better. At least for something different and new.

Dana: Any other recommendations?Your Top 5 Festival Films

Mads: It’s a tough question. Another film that felt like a discovery to me is a Chillian film called Naomi Campbel, it follows a transexual woman in Santiago, it’s a narrative film but it integrates real characters in their own surroundings, reenacting their own everyday lives. And reenactments are one of the most interesting tendencies in cinema right now.

Naomi Campbell

Naomi Campbel

Last year we had a focus on reenactments with the film The Act of Killing, and a number of other films, and we had a seminar about them. And this year we have a whole thematic side bar dedicated to the idea of films that work with reenactments and reconstructions as their basic premise. An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker is also an example because it’s with real life characters that are reenacting something that they lived through in their own surroundings. A Norwegian film called Love Me is also an example. I’m very excited about the thematic programme based on this idea, it is called Everything is Under Control, which is an ironic statement because authorial control is a tabu in documentary, but in this case it is films that work as a reference to something real but the films work around it in very creative ways. One example is a Canadian film called The Dirties, it is a fiction film, a narrative film but the way it intervenes in and interacts with real situations is totally like an interventionist documentary strategy and it’s about a young burgeoning filmmaker played by the director himself, again this troubling link between the real and the artificial…

Dana: This was a dilemma in documentary since the very beginning…

Mads: Yes and I think it became even more of a dilemma later. When Flaherty made Nanook of the North, nobody was complaining that this wasn’t a real family but later when observational cinema really took off in the 60s and 70s and sort of claimed a monopoly in cinematic truth, all these things became problematic. But adding layers of staging, these layers can add something to the truth value of the film, they are more than pure effects.

Dana: What would you say a documentary film offers an audience that a fiction film perhaps doesn’t?

Mads: Documentary is not as canonised as feature filmmaking, you don’t have an A level, B level, C level, documentaries are much more independent and things come out of the blue. Many of the films in our international competition this year, we just didn’t see them coming. And suddenly it was just “boom”, there were all these amazing films…

 Top 10 most popular films at CPH:DOX 2013

1. The Reunion (dir. Anna Odell)
2. Days of Hope (dir. Ditte Haarløv Johnsen)
3. Mistaken for Strangers (dir. Tom Berninger)
4. Generation Iron (dir. Vlad Yudin)
5. Pandora’s Promise (dir. Robert Stone)
6. Mademoiselle C (dir. Fabien Constant)
7. The Armstrong Lie (dir. Alex Gibney)
8. 12 O’ Clock Boys (dir. Nathan Lotfy)
9. Narco Cultura (dir. Shaul Schwarz)
10. Everyday Rebellion (dir. The Riahi Brothers)

And the award goes to…To find out who were the winners of CPH:DOX 2013, click here.


If you’re a creative or producer within the media field, you might be interested in some of the initiatives supported by CPH:DOX:

SWIM LAB  – Scandianavian World of Innovative Media, a transmedia initiative launched by CPH:DOX to stimulate innovation and new ways of thinking within media  – Call for entries now open, find out more here.

CPH:FORUM –  CPH:DOX’s international financing and co-production event, dedicated to supporting creative, visual and auteur-driven films. This was the first pitching venue for many great projects such as “Searching For Sugarman”, “Armadillo” and “The Act of Killing”, the latter now competing for a Best Documentary Academy Award.

DOX:LAB – a commissioned MEDIA-supported program for invited filmmakers from EU and non-EU countries. This program was established in 2009 by CPH:DOX International Documentary Film Festival and  is focused on training / project development, pitching events at international co-production markets and subsequent production.

DOC ALLIANCE –  a creative partnership of seven key European documentary film festivals whose is to support the diverse nature of documentary film and to increase audience awareness of the fascinating possibilities of this genre.


Thomas made his first short film at the age of 16 and was admitted three years later to the National Film School of Denmark, thus becoming their youngest student ever. He graduated in 1993 with his short Last Round garnering a nomination for a Student Academy Award. He was catapulted to international fame in 1998 when his second feature, Festen, received the Jury Prize in Cannes, as the first film completed under the terms of the Dogme 95 Manifesto, of which he had been co-author alongside Lars von Trier.

In an interview taken on October 14 at Filmmakers Afternoon Tea, Mayfair Hotel, London, as part of the 2012 LONDON FILM FESTIVAL, Thomas reminisces about the “innocent days” of his first shorts:

Dana:”What is your relationship with the short form and how did you find the transition from making shorts to making features?”

Thomas: “I made three shorts before starting making features and I find that form very powerful. Unfortunately the weak point is the distribution, nobody sees them, which is why it is dying somehow, or at least it dies in the career, it doesn’t die in the world…But I find it as difficult and as powerful as a feature, maybe they’ll come back, I don’t know, it seems that things are getting longer, it’s the TV series now, which I also find very interesting. But I miss the days of the short film.

Dana: “Well, you never know, you might make another short one day…”

Thomas: “Yes definitely, and I’m also thinking maybe the best film I’ve done so far is a short…”

Dana: “Which one is this?”

Thomas: “My graduate film, The Last Round.

Last round (Sidste omgang) from bonana on Vimeo.

Thomas: Then I did another one produced by Nimbus and called The Boy Who Walked Backwards. To make good short film you have to be incredibly smart, as it is much more difficult to achieve the same dramatic effect in a much shorter span of time. Also there is an innocence, a purity about my short films which I lost since I started making features, and I’m attracted to purity. The short film can be so powerful, it’s a sort of no-nonsense form of the feature, so I like it…

Dana: “Any tips for filmmakers who make the transition from short to feature?”

Thomas: “Well, I’ve made so many mistakes, so how could I do tips? But what I think is interesting for me is, don’t follow the ideas that seem rational and right, the idea where you say to your friends “This is crazy” and your friends say “Ah, we can’t do that”, this is the one you should do (laughter).

Thomas Vinterberg introducing his new film The Hunt at 2012 LONDON FILM FESTIVAL

Thomas: “The Hunt is about a small innocent society/village somewhere in the forest, with good-hearted people, lots of togetherness rituals, a hunting society and this man, male character who works in a kindergarten. One of the girls in the kindergarten is a very close friend’s daughter and slightly falls in love with him, in a non-sexual kind of way, of course, and he’s rejecting her a little bit, she gets angry and lies about it. It’s a sexual lie and a witch hunt begins. And he is ostracised from this society and hell breaks loose, orange turns blue and black. And I made a film years ago called Festen, this is sort of the anti-thesis to that movie, a mirror. So that is the movie. For me it is primarily a film about friendship, love, forgiveness, and primarily maybe loss of innocence. There’s all sorts of naked jumping into the river at the beginning, and there’s also fearful, hostile people”.

Dana: “It is a very challenging topic, and you are known for choosing very difficult, very controversial topics, what is your method of dealing with a subject like that, how do you handle it?”

Thomas: “It is also very dramatic, and it is true to say it was very difficult but also very fruitful as a writer to sit with, because there is a conflict and you can bring people and you can undress the characters through conflict. As a filmmaker, and I have made 20 films in my life.. I wanted to make it about something of importance, not morally speaking, not as a priest, but it has to be something…and I really felt that there was something in this, which made it a very uplifting process, a very joyful ride…”

Dana: “What is it like working with Mads Mikkelsen?”

Thomas:”Well, the first thing that hits you is that he is so strikingly beautiful, so that hurts a little, I wanted to dress his down and destroy his good looks, but then you learn that he’s such a friendly, giving, heroic team-player, he’s a huge enthusiast and very good, extremely good…I changed the character for him because he was more of a hero, strong man, man of few words, Robert de Niro kind of character in the script…and you notice when you see the film that we made him softer, we made him a school teacher, very humble, wearing glasses, and weak somehow, almost Christian, very forgiving, very patient…”

Dana: “Did he want that?”

Thomas: “No, I wanted that, and he agreed on that as we were both inspired by that idea…I initially wrote it for Robert de Niro then Mads came on board and then I rewrote it for him. I always write for specific actors, also if they’re dead or something, there has to be someone…and Mads does not attach to any project without a script, so I couldn’t write for him, until he was attached…it was very complicated”.

Dana: “And what is it about him that made you think he would be particularly great for this role?”

Thomas: “Well, actually, there’s something very truthful in his acting, he’s very very realistic…besides from all the clichés that the camera really wants to look at him, he’s got a huge commercial potential and there’s also something very real about him. And I was curious to work with him, we’d worked in the same community for so many years without working together. And truthfulness is important in a film about lies, I guess basically the film’s theme is about how lies can spread, therefore everything was about making it as “naked” and as truthful as possible, and Mads completely fits into that, he’s born out of the 70’s attempt to make films in the street, American, Scorsese movies from the seventies when realism was reborn.

Dana: “And the little girl, it’s her big screen debut, how did you find shooting the more difficult scenes with her given her age?”

Thomas: “She was wonderful, there’s this child and…normally we say that working with animals and children is something you should avoid. In this case it was the other way around: the dog and the girl were just spot-on…And she was just incredibly good…And Mads and the other actors were, of course with a smile on their face, were almost intimidated by her…’cause she was just wiping the floor with them, every time, it’s incredible. We had a discussion whether to tell her about these matters or not, and of course she doesn’t understand sexuality, and should not, but we told her everything else. ‘Cause listen, we spit in her face and she was thrown around, she needs to know why…And this film is also a revolt against the over-protection and victimisation of children, so we thought, let’s talk to her like to an adult. And of course we agreed with the parents first, and it worked, she didn’t care, she was like, “ok fine, let’s shoot”, and then she did her ping-pong!

Dana: “A very precocious girl”.

Thomas: “A very healthy girl. She was very good but she’s not going to do it again.”

Dana: “About the directing process, David Mamet says that it’s all about where to put the camera and what to tell the actors, would you agree? And do you have a certain method?”

Thomas: “I think that would be pushing it. I have a method, yes. If this is my movie, and this is where the actors have some dialogue, together with the actors, and the writer, I’m creating a big movie around them all. We talk a lot about the past, and not only about the immediate past, like what are you coming with, in the room,  did you just come from a fight, or from having sex, or…But what do they have together, rituals, what do they hide from each other, what are their dreams for the future, their plans. So what I always do is to work very hard and thoroughly with the actors, dialogue and rehearsals, and with the writer before we start shooting. And then we let go, to all the irrationalities, then we’re being charlatans. Because, hopefully by that time, we have solid ground to be standing on….if you can call that a method, that’s my method…and my actors seem to turn the way they want to, which is different from David Mamet. His method works very well though…”

Dana: “There’s an interrogation scene in the movie, with the little girl, where they quite literally put the words in her mouth, and I’ve read somewhere that this was based on a real transcript, can you tell me a bit about that?

Thomas: “Yes, it’s a police transcript, I’m not going to say which nationality because I don’t want to point fingers, I didn’t even want to point fingers at the police, but it’s from the 90’s, late 90s and they have improved, or at least they tried to improve…so I changed the scene to be some kind of interrogator, and I also took out a lot of very very ugly stuff, it was much much worse, and in all the cases it was much worse. You wouldn’t believe how much people put in children’s minds, how leaning the questions are…because they anticipate that the child…who wants to escape from it, because it is very unpleasant, therefore they sort of insist on this, and through that they implant false memories and they’ve done that in many many many cases. And I think that police is not doing a lot of that but the parents and a lot of kindergarten workers, they don’t know shit about this, they don’t know what to do, so they ask the same question to this poor child, and it becomes part of this child’s fantasy, and to satisfy the grownups they start inventing stuff…and again they end up as the victims, ‘cause they grow up to believe it, they grow up with the memory of having been assaulted without having been assaulted…so they grow up with a similar problem, similar needs, and they are violated by the overprotection, the fearfulness of our society…but in my film she appears to be a she-devil in people’s minds, which is not intended, because she was so nice, and she’s in love with him, so it’s an innocent love..and who wouldn’t be in love with Mads Mikkelsen?”

For an in-depth analysis of Thomas Vinterberg’s work, cinematic realism and Dogme 95, we recommend an article from the Film Journal. Click here to read it.