Dogme 95 is a movement established by a handful of Danish directors. Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen and Kristian Levring signed the Dogme 95 manifesto and created the Vows of Chastity to support inexpensive filmmaking in opposition to big budget productions.
To protest against the expensive but insubstantial products of the special effect-driven Hollywood industry was not the only aim of the four directors; they stated that the auteur concept established by the French New Wave was “bourgeois romanticism”. Their aim was to emphasize that the creation of a movie is a collective process where the director and actors should cooperate as equals and therefore the former should never be credited as the creator of the film.
The Vow of Chastity is a list of ten restrictions a Dogme film should follow (although most proponents violate one or more of these rules). The manifesto is essentially an attack against the elementary factors of filmmaking that all directors work with and could hardly avoid using during their work.
It is perhaps due to the challenging nature of the list that the first films of the Dogme movement came three years after the signing of the manifesto: Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration and Lars von Trier’s The Idiots featured at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival.
Although the movement gave birth to a few extraordinary, innovative movies that not only manage to promote the joy of collective filmmaking but are also pivotal in their social criticism, ultimately the restrictions proved to be more obstructive than inspirational.
Despite starting off as a similarly innovative phenomena to the French New Wave, the Dogme 95 project appears not to have had a comparable global revolutionary influence on filmmaking. Nevertheless, it produced numerous groundbreaking pieces, of which here is our list of the 20 best.
The 10 points of the Vow of Chastity:
1. Shooting 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).
2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.)
3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
4. The film must be in colour. 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).
5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now).
8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
10. The director must not be credited.
20. Fuckland (Jose Luis Marques, 1999)
The first Argentinian Dogme is a mockumentary about Fabian Stratas, a comedian who goes on a trip to the Falklands and documents this experience with his own hidden camera. Fabian soon sets his eyes on Camilla, and from this point the film focuses on how the central character tries to reterritorialize the Falklands through his relationship with this woman.
The two characters are the only performers in the film – all the others are locals unconscious about the fact that a film was being shot. Hence the movie was largely filmed illegally, helping the strange story to qualify for the approval of the Dogme 95 Committee.
19. Joy Ride (Martin Rengel, 2000)
The Swiss Dogme is based on a newspaper report about the death of a girl who was bullied and assaulted by the members of her group. The plot is not so different from a typical scary movie: a group of youngsters kill their time driving around the town when the addition of a girl to the group stirs up the situation, leading to a tragic end.
Although the inclusion of death and violence goes against the rules of Dogme filmmaking (the film must not contain superficial action), the amateur actors, the use of a hand-held camera and genuine locations make this film fit into the line of non-Danish Dogme films. While the strong socio-political statement common in most Dogme films is not as apparent as it could be, Joy Ride is an interesting example of how Dogme is constantly challenged by its own rules.
18. Gypo (Jan Dunn, 2005)
Gypo, one of the relatively recent films recognized by the Dogme 95 movement, is the first ever British Dogme film. Interesting difference from Danish Dogmes is that the film focuses on working class people. The story is centred on Helen (great performance by Pauline McLynne), her cooled-down marriage with Paul (Paul McGann) and the Czech immigrant Tasha (Chloe Sirene) who came into their life as a friend of their daughter’s.
The cinematography and subject of the film make it very similar to the British social realism of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. However, while the dysfunctional working class family and the topic of immigration offer a strong plot, the often-improvised scenes give the impression of a film graduate’s work instead of documentary realism.
Although the acting is great, the big drama of Dogme films seems somewhat over the top and unnatural in the milieu of kitchen sink realism. Despite its weakness in terms of British social realism though, as a foreign Dogme film, Gypo is a worthwhile watch with great moments of spontaneous filmmaking and a gripping story.
17. Once Upon Another Time (Juan Pinzas, 2000)
The first Spanish Dogme well represents the few typical memes that we can see being repeated in most of these movies. Once Upon Another Time is about the reunion of a group of old university friends who in the present live their (only seemingly) happy lives until the occasion brings up not only old memories, but all the psychological and sexual tension that existed between the members.
Rosendo (Monti Castineiras), the host, Nacho (Victor Mosqueira), Lorento (Isabel Vallejo) and Lucas (Vicente de Souza) turn out to be in a peculiar love quadrangle, but there are other unsettling secrets for the friends to work out too.
Psychological deficiency and frustration is often a central motif in Dogme films, and there is hardly any movie on this list where we can’t see a celebration or a family gathering occurring where the tension between the characters culminates. The first ever Dogme film, The Celebration entirely focuses on such an event, and so does the film of Juan Pinzas.
However, while the revelations in Vinterberg’s movie come as a shock, the secrets that get unveiled in Once Upon Another Time are not so surprising: by the time the characters reveal them, the audience would already figured them out.
16. Julien Donkey-Boy (Harmony Korine, 1999)
Although Harmony Korine’s film was recognized by the Dogme 95 committee, it does not come as a surprise that, like many other Dogme movies, it violates a few of the ten rules. It occasionally uses non-diegetic sound, and admittedly, some scenes were shot with hidden cameras that were not hand-held. However, these scenes are used to capture unpretentious reactions, therefore serve Dogme filmmaking by putting the people featuring in the movie before the apparatus.
Korine excels the documentary-style achievable by applying the rules of Dogme filmmaking, and mixes this with plentiful of surrealism resulting in an eccentric, istic but visually stunning movie.
The first American Dogme film is an experimental piece that tells the story of a schizophrenic, Julien (Ewen Bremmer), from his own point of view. Werner Herzog gives an extraordinary performance as the father, and the film is full of memorable filmic moments. However it is exactly the opposite of those Dogme films that omit filmic formalism in order to focus on a story and its human characters without any frippery.
15. The Breadbasket (Matthew Biancaniello, 2002)
Directed and acted by Matthew Biancaniello, The Breadbasket is a short film about Harry, the actor suffering of eating disorder that finally makes his life impossible. Harry has an antagonistic relationship with food, his body and girlfriend, yet, he can’t do anything to change his life and do something against the ravenous attacks.
Even though the film works with the most minimalistic mise-en-scene to compile with the rules of Dogme 95, the result is a surrealistic story on the demonic appetite, similar to the Hungarian Taxidermia. Despite the brief length of the film it is a powerful testament of the modern illness of depression and eating disorders.
As the best Dogme films, it does not only give an insight into a disrupted human mind, but it places the audience into the point of view of the character, resulting in a memorable, but rather uncomfortable cinematic experience.