In 1995, Danish film directors Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg initiated DOGME 95, an avant-garde re-modernist film movement, aimed at removing the polish and glitz from the process of filmmaking. It appealed exclusively to independent filmmakers with small budgets whose sole desire was to create authentic, raw pieces of cinema. A middle finger to the Hollywood machine, the movement caught on in small circles. Mike Figgis took an extremely low-budget, unglamorous approach to Leaving Las Vegas, which was hailed as one of the best films of 1995. Figgis’ disillusionment with Hollywood can be detected in this quote from an interview with the Dramatic Institute of Sweden:
The further that I went into the digital world the more intrigued I became with the possibilities of this new and unexplored technology. What started out as a marriage of convenience turned into a love affair. My dissatisfaction with the mainstream cinema scene stems from a deep frustration with the stranglehold that technology has in the 35mm, studio-based film business. Visit any set and you can observe the bullshit at first hand. Observe the reverence with which the camera is treated. The iconic status of the crane and the Steadicam; the vast armada of trucks and motor homes; the platoons of young men and women carrying clip boards and wearing status clothing with walkie talkies and hi-tech communication devices; the sense of self importance and Godliness that seems to permeate everyone involved with the process of pretense and fabrication; the deadly trios of execs and agents feeding their faces at the food table whilst talking on their mobiles to other execs on other films at other food tables. One year later the results of this “holy” labor can be seen in a multiplex anywhere in the world. Another Hollywood film about nothing in particular.
With Dogme 95, filmmakers were encouraged to let the work evolve organically in natural settings, with as little post-production as possible. The goal is to force the audience to focus on the performances and the drama, rather than production value. For instance, Dogville takes place on a bare sound-stage, sporadically marked with chalk outlines and minimal props. The absence of set gives the audience a sense of omniscience, allowing us to see things that the characters themselves cannot.
The Dogme 95 “Vow of Chastity” was broken down into ten rules:
- 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, i.e., diegetic.
- 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 film format must be Academy 35 mm.
- The director must not be credited.
Many films were created under the umbrella of Dogme, including Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, The Idiots, Italian for Beginners, Dogville, Manderlay, Antichrist, and the recent Melancholia. The rules listed in the “vow of chastity” have been broken and/or totally ignored throughout the years, as evidenced in subsequent projects since the beginning of the movement. Von Trier has credited himself as director in nearly all of his films, weapons and props have appeared in Dogville and Dancer in the Dark (the latter was filmed on digital), as well as Antichrist; special effects were used in Melancholia, and music has been placed in the soundtrack. Traces of Dogme 95 can be seen in all of these films, and adventurous film students have utilized many of the methods while filming projects.
Whether you are in favor of this controversial chapter in film history or not, one thing is for certain: in a world full of over-produced, manipulative Hollywood films, it is nice to know that there are those who are more than willing to challenge the system for the sake of artistic integrity.