The manifesto that laid movies bare

With Dogme 95, four Danish directors reduced film to its powerful best. And more than a decade on, they’re still winning awards. By Kaleem Aftab

The 2008 European Film Awards took place in Copenhagen for the first time, making it the perfect venue for the co-founders of the Dogme 95 manifesto, directors Lars Von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen and Kristian Levring, to take home the much-coveted achievement in world cinema award.

It's an amazing feat for a movement that started with Von Trier, bored of being Europe's most acclaimed young director and the cumbersome nature of the film industry, summoning Thomas Vinterberg, a gifted twenty-something graduate of the Danish Film School, to his office to write a set of movie-making rules that would reduce the cost and size of most film sets to a minimum. Vinterberg reported that they just thought about everything they hated about movie-making and simply banned it. They christened these 10 rules "The Vow of Chastity" and announced them at a Paris conference in March 1995, by which time fellow Danish film-makers Levring, a commercials director, and the veteran Kragh-Jacobsen had been invited to take their vows and become a part of the original Dogme "brotherhood".

The rules ranged from those aimed at reducing cost – shooting must be done on location, optical work and filters forbidden, sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa – to ones about aesthetics – the camera must be hand-held, no period pieces, the film must not contain superficial action, and the format must be academy 35mm. There were even rules stating that genre movies were forbidden and, believe it or not, that the director must not be credited.

These rules were all written in pompous language and the manifesto took a swipe at the French New Wave, decrying the "auteur concept" for being "bourgeois romanticism from the very start and thereby ... false." It was a manifesto that despised the Hollywood way of making films as much as the French New Wave and called for a "democratic cinema" where everyone could make films. But, most of all, it was a movement in keeping with Von Trier's philosophy – don't take yourself too seriously. And then, after the Paris announcement, all talk of manifestos went quiet for three years.

It was at Cannes in 1998 that the movement first imprinted itself on to the international consciousness. The two original members of the movement had Dogme 95 films premiering at the festival, Dogme #1: Festen and Dogme #2: The Idiots. In the first sign that the rules weren't being strictly adhered to, it was already revealed that Festen was going to be Vinterberg's debut, and that The Idiots had been directed by Von Trier. However, what stood the movement in good stead, more than anything in the manifesto, was that it turned out that the two movies were really rather good.

Festen, in particular, garnered much praise. The story centres on a 60th birthday party in an aristocratic Danish family, where it is revealed that the father celebrating his birthday had sexually abused his children. Much to the amazement of the accuser, his oldest son, the revelation seems to be ignored by the rest of the partygoers. The Idiots is typical agitprop from Von Trier: a group of people gather in a house in Copenhagen to break all rules and bring out the inner idiot in themselves. The genius of this story was that it was a metaphor for the Dogme 95 movement.

The manifesto was a tremendous marketing gimmick. It appealed to critics who had fantastic films from a small European country to write about, and fired the imagination of film-makers, who saw a way of making affordable films that would be taken seriously by critics and major film festivals. All of a sudden, Denmark was not only on the film map, it was at the centre of it.

Amid all the acclaim, not much was said about the biggest innovation of the movement, which would ultimately prove to be Dogme 95's lasting legacy – the use of small hand-held digital cameras. The digital cameras allowed them to shoot cheaply, quickly and in lighting conditions that would have been impossible using traditional methods. They got around their rule on film format by transferring their digital stock on to a 35mm print before showing the film. In a move steeped with Catholic symbolism, they also had a process whereby, after making a film, a director could make a confession and admit to his film-making sins; Vinterberg, for example, "confessed" to the banal measure of covering a window during one scene.

Before Dogme 95, only Harmony Korine, with his 1997 film Gummo, had successfully shot a breakout movie on a consumer digital camera, and it did not take long for the American director to join the movement with the film Dogme #6: Julien Donkey-Boy. It was at this stage that the movement seemed to run away with itself. The brotherhood set up a website where film-makers could ask for their films to be officially certified. It was a time-consuming process that lasted until 2002 when, after 31 films had been given the Dogme 95 certificate, the brotherhood declared that directors could simply certify their own films. It had long since become clear that the original directors had grown bored of the movement.

It only took a couple of bad films for Dogme 95 to lose some of its shine. Soon after, Vinterberg and Von Trier were no longer pretending that the movement was anything but a well-timed gimmick. Vinterberg found it difficult to cope with the overnight success of Festen when he was feted at film festivals around the world as the Dogme 95 poster boy and mocked his own fatigue in his film All About Love, in which Sean Penn plays a man who lives on a plane, never touching down. Vinterberg has never been able to match the success of his first film and is both the movement's biggest success and casualty.

Von Trier found other ways to amuse himself, and was soon celebrating films made in the spirit of Dogme 95, where film-makers would create their own rules. This playfulness is most apparent on The Five Obstructions, which he co-directed with Jorgen Leth, in which different rules are devised to make filming more difficult.

The rules and the need for them have become increasingly obsolete as digital technology has improved, but the speedy rise and fall of Dogme 95 should not take anything away from the brilliant manner in which these four film-makers, for a couple of years at least, reminded the world that cinema comes in many different forms and guises – and that they make films in Denmark, too.

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