15 Years On, What We Should and Shouldn’t Learn from Dogme ’95
On March 22, 1995, a group of Danish filmmakers including Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg made a simple announcement, sparking a movement and an ideology which ripples throughout all filmmaking to this day. Their innovation: a new filmmaking structure called (excuse the Danish spelling) “Dogme ’95.” As a reaction to the profit motive and rigid methodology of filmmaking which they saw as destructive to the creative process at the time, they invented ten rules, called the “vows of chastity” to which any filmmaker making a Dogme film needed to strictly adhere. These vows were handcrafted to force filmmakers to work against their own habits at the time, against the ideas of a “blockbuster” mentality, against fetishizing the image above all else, and refocusing on character and story in the purest sense of the word. Here are the vows:
Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.
The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed.
The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.
The film must be in color. Special lighting is not acceptable. If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera.
Optical work and filters are forbidden.
The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (that is to say that the film takes place here and now).
Genre movies are not acceptable.
The final picture must be transferred to the Academy 35mm film, with an aspect ratio of 4:3, that is, not widescreen.
The director must not be credited.
To date there are 254 Dogme features listed on Dogme’s website, although only a handful were made by the actual architects of Dogme. And incidentally, all of them list the director by name. Just sayin’.
To the outsider, these rules probably sound fairly restricting, but most creative types agree that restrictions make their work better, not worse. If, for instance, one decides early on to never use any color except shades of red, green, or purple, it will make all color-related decisions that much easier and instantly coherent. Many directors self-impose restrictions to their crews to create a specific look and feel, Dogme was just taking that idea to a new level.
But like all rules, these were made to be broken and the one that was broken almost immediately was the 10th rule, that the director should not be credited. In the short run ego bested that rule, and even if the rule was honored within the films themselves there is no mistaking who directed these films. But the intention (also not particularly honored by later Dogme films) behind that rule may be the most important part of it – get the director out of the picture.
The movie isn’t about you, assface, it’s about the characters and story.
From “Dogme” to “Dogma-Style”
So what was the immediate reaction to the Dogme ’95 movement? Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration” (aka “Festen”) is the undisputed champ among the films. It went on to win the Grand Jury prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. The gut-wrenching film concerns a young man named Christian who outs his father as a sexual abuser at a giant celebration in honor of the patriarch, and the movie plays like a birthday video gone very sour. After the initial shock of that movie, Dogme didn’t connect with audiences quite as well. Lars Von Trier’s “The Idiots” (“Idioten”) managed to get some play on the name value of its uncredited director, and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen‘s “Mifunes Sidste Sang” is known for its evocative cinematography (Kragh-Jacobsen was the only Dogme filmmaker to shoot his movie on 35mm film), but received little in the way of a release.
And after that, filmmakers around the world began to see the value in shooting on handheld video cameras with no lights. The films made by the Dogme filmmakers had a painterly, impressionistic style to them, and furthermore it was undeniable that these films had been legitimized by the indie film establishment. They signaled the dawn of a new kind of naturalism, one where beauty could be found hiding in the grainy-noisiness of the video image. Of course, to assume that anyone would achieve the same results as seasoned filmmakers trying a new technique is an insult to all the work that Vinterberg and Von Trier had done prior to 1995.
And as with the original filmmakers who created the concept of Dogme, as filmmakers began making piles of digital films “Dogma-style,” the last rule was dropped. As time went by, more and more rules were dropped because, let’s face it – filmmakers want to put music on their films, they want to make horror and action films, they want to bring props to a given location, and they often want to work widescreen. But mostly, they want to see their name follow the words “A Film By…”
Mostly, it seems that “Dogma-style” was attractive to producers who didn’t want to rent expensive cameras, hire gaffers or rent 10-ton lighting packages. Like a creepy theater producer I worked for in 1999 who said “just do it black box!” (translation – don’t design it in any way), the battle cry of “just do it Dogma-style” began to mean “you don’t need to make it look good or create a visual experience for the viewer, just shoot it on this $3,500 camera!” And no amount of discussion about how, aesthetically, “The Celebration” made that look work could dissuade the thrifty and careless producer from equating “raw” with “unlit.”
I mean, who needs preparation?
I would make a different argument that I think the architects of Dogme ’95 would agree with. We’re in a different world today, facing different challenges as filmmakers and storytellers. Our advantages are new, as well as whatever it is that we’re doing wrong as a group. So why would it make sense to adhere to 15-year-old rules in order to evolve as artists?
New Tricks for an Old Dogme
From Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny” to the Paul Greengrass’ “Bourne” movies and a multitude in between, film audiences have seen the residue of the Dogme movement in every genre imaginable. So as filmmakers we’ve been there and as audiences we’ve done that.
So it’s no surprise that what was an exciting idea back in 1995 has lost its bite. Even its progeny, the modern “mumblecore” movement has probably seen its best days, culminating with “Cyrus.” But the ideas of Dogme are still enticing as all hell to a filmmaker, but mostly because it shakes things up and makes a bunch of one’s decisions before Final Draft (or Celtix) can be launched. Most importantly, Dogme aimed the filmmakers’ eyes at capturing emotion and not visual perfection, and making stories that were about pure characters and not about special effects and fancy post tricks. It began with a group of filmmakers who cared about their craft sitting in a room and asking the question: What are we doing wrong?
So is it fair to ask in this era, where Comicon sets the tone of Hollywood, DSLR’s empower would-be filmmakers to achieve professional-level results for a low budget, desktop editing probably sits on most of the computers where this blog can be read, and torrent sites steal content freely and distribute it for their own profit (but not the filmmakers’)… So Could we (or at least a core group of filmmakers) come together and create a similar pact today, peering deeply into our deficits as content creators, and creating a new set of rules designed to pull ourselves out of the rut we’re in even if we don’t recognize the rut?
In short: What are we doing wrong?