TORONTO — What is Dogma 95, and why is the American movie scene taking a close look at it this year?
It all began four years ago, when a small group of Danish directors cooked up a new philosophy of filmmaking, meant to counterbalance the emphasis on gadgetry and technology that has infiltrated world cinema. Declaring war on "the film of illusion," they signed a "Vow of Chastity" based on 10 "indisputable rules" they would follow to ensure realistic moviemaking.
Among these cinematic statutes: All filming must be done in real locations with hand-held cameras; no artificial lighting or postsynchronized music are allowed; violent "superficial action" is forbidden; the story must occur in the present and avoid traditional formulas; and the director can't be listed in the credits.
"I am no longer an artist.... My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings," said the credo signed by the Dogma 95 pioneers, who swore to "refrain from personal taste" and "regard the instant as more important than the whole."
It's a radical attempt to revitalize film by treating fictional stories with documentary techniques. One British pundit said the manifesto "more closely resembles a film-school lark than a serious attempt to kick-start a new wave." That critic praised the "sense of oppositional fun" stirred up by the group, though, and audiences have been open to the new approach.
"Breaking the Waves," which first sketched out the Dogma 95 techniques, became a major hit for Lars von Trier, one of the credo's original signers.
Thomas Vinterberg's dark comedy "The Celebration," the first movie to carry the Dogma 95 seal in its opening credits, also fared well on American and European screens, with its sardonic tale of a privileged family whose long-awaited reunion is blown apart by its dysfunctional past.
Two more Dogma 95 movies are now arriving in theaters. "Mifune," which was enthusiastically received at the recent Toronto filmfest, comes from Danish director Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, who has embraced the Dogma 95 doctrine after decades of work in other styles.
The main character is an ambitious man who learns of his father's death just after his wedding day. He then returns to his family's rundown farm to put things in order and becomes the reluctant guardian of his mentally slow brother - whose lifelong hero is Toshiro Mifune, the legendary Japanese actor who inspired the movie's title.
The first American to produce a self-proclaimed Dogma 95 work is Harmony Korine, the hugely adventurous filmmaker who co-wrote the controversial "Kids" in 1995 and made his directorial debut two years later with "Gummo," an unflinching look at the underside of small-town life. His new movie, "Julien Donkey-Boy," opens today after much-discussed showings at the prestigious Toronto and New York filmfests.
The apparent goal of "Julien Donkey-Boy" is to combine Dogma 95 principles - it begins by displaying the group's logo - with Korine's own cinematic style, which is so freewheeling that no vow of creative "chastity" could hope to contain it. The title character is a troubled young man whose growing instability is made worse by a confusing home life dominated by his self-centered, sometimes abusive father.
The action unfolds in bits and pieces that resemble a collage more than a linear story, and Korine's uninhibited visual mannerisms (fractured editing, impressionistic images) give it a dreamlike quality.
The inventiveness of "Julien Donkey-Boy" points up a provocative question about the Dogma 95 approach. Do its "cinma-vrit" techniques erase the boundaries between make-believe and everyday life? Or do they serve the opposite purpose, throwing "fiction" and "documentary" into head-on collisions?
Influential, but short-lived
Judging from the evidence so far, Dogma 95 may have an influential but limited life span. While the lively "Mifune" will probably capture a wide audience in its commercial run, von Trier's latest exercise in the style - the aptly titled "Idiots," about obnoxious young adults who pretend to be mentally disturbed - is a self-indulgent mess. And although "Julien Donkey-Boy" carries the Dogma 95 stamp of approval, its explosive imaginativeness sails way beyond anything the group's originators are likely to have envisioned.
Also working against the movement is the fact that only a handful of official Dogma 95 movies have been produced, and even von Trier is reportedly growing tired of the approach he helped to conceptualize.
Perhaps this is all we could have expected from a movement that calls for cinematic "truth" at the expense of "good taste and any aesthetic considerations," as the manifesto demands. It may make a stimulating contribution to film culture and then fade quietly into the history books.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society