24 November 2023

In Copenhagen, the CPH:DOX, one of the world’s major documentary cinema meetings, is celebrating its 20th anniversary, with a rich program of more than two hundred films, half of which have never been seen before. Until March 26, the event reflects on the well-established trend of “parafiction” – how fiction can bring the documentary closer to reality – and on the rise of collaborative films in which the protagonists participate in the writing. The anniversary theme – “predicting the past, rewriting the future” – anchors memory and anticipation in the main contemporary debates. In different ways, a number of films use humor as a token of social lucidity.

The substantial marrow remains the international competition which presents thirteen films in world premiere, produced for seven of them by Scandinavian companies. Among these, two Danish documentaries hold particular attention. They don’t have much in common except the patient observation (over five or six years) of charismatic heroes who could be described as “good actors” and suspected of wanting to send a stronger message than the movies themselves. These productions, whose interest lies precisely in the filmmakers’ effort to resist their headliners, are much more than portraits.

Factory of a monster

The first, Theater of Violence, by Emil Langballe and Lukasz Konopa, follows Ugandan lawyer Krispus Ayena. Dashing and talkative, he prepares the defense of Dominic Ongwen, 48, a former child soldier from Uganda, who was 9 years old when the terrorist group of Joseph Kony (LRA) killed his parents and kidnapped him to transform him into a machine of war. In 2015, he was charged with 70 counts – the list is so long that it took the clerk more than 26 minutes to read them at the start of the trial – including sexual slavery, torture and murder, before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which confirms his conviction in December 2022. Between the courtroom and Uganda, the documentary is careful not to take the side of the defense to focus on the intimate and political fabric of a freak.

Around this case, which it seems cannot be settled on earth, two worlds coexist. On the screen, the contrast is striking. On the one hand, a black tide of computer screens behind which lawyers listen to each other through headsets. On the other hand, the Ugandan bush, dotted with pockets of fire and dead trees, where the facts took place. These regular clashes where M tackse Ayena make it possible to broaden the debate. Despite a global mandate, as of January 2016 all nine cases the International Criminal Court was investigating were in African countries. Does a form of legal colonialism exist today? Does Ongwen’s conviction legitimize autocratic presidents like Museveni whose army has also been accused of committing crimes against humanity? What is the blind spot in our Western societies that allows us to ignore the dramas in which we have played a significant role?

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