The convention-breaking Dogme 95 has turned into convention itself, embraced and copied by both the film- and advertising business, says Thomas Vinterberg who warns potential Dogme-directors that they are too late for the party. Nevertheless he is convinced that it would be good for any director to make a Dogme-film at some stage
By Peter Rundle
Excerpts from an interview given by Thomas Vinterberg in his office, Wednesday November 4th 1999
This interview is meant to complement and elaborate on the Dogme 95 Manifest and the ten commandments of The Vow of Chastity. So maybe you should begin by explaining why it came to be these exact rules that you and Lars von Trier wrote down back in March 1995.
“It was mainly about giving ourselves limitations, and in my opinion it is of less interest which particular limitations we decided on – it might as well have been ten other rules. The important thing is that we have tried to remove all other than the vital ingredients: The story, the actors and the moment as a moment – not as an amalgamation of five hundred layers over several years.”
“We made these rules because we felt that the things I just mentioned were dying in the embrace of cosmetics. Firstly, giving yourself a set of rules makes you feel that you are taking part in a game – there are common rules – and secondly it creates a new kind of solemnity. If there is something you are not allowed to do, it activates you to think: Then we have to do things in a different way! And that is stimulating for your fantasy. It is also stimulating working within a defined area – like a painter. If you have too many possibilities, it is pacifying. So ironically enough, it has been a huge liberation. It has been the easiest, funniest, most frivolous and energy-packed thing I have ever taken part in.”
But if you accept the fact that the individual rules aren’t that important – that it is the mere existence of rules, the creation of a defined area – is it then crucial whether people follow your rules or make their own Dogme-rules?
“I am of the categorical opinion that a Dogme-film is only a Dogme-film if you abide by the rules we have laid down – otherwise you will have to call it something else. Obviously, if you have the humble ambition to create a wave it is necessary to gather several people around it – an important part of the idea is the brotherhood we have created between the Dogme-directors.”
But you yourselves have broken these rules several times in your own films – that is evident from the “confessions” you have made regarding your films. You can argue that these violations are minor details but where is the limit to what you can allow yourself?
“There is a limit, of course, to how much you can violate the rules, but we will leave that discussion to each individual – it is an impossible discussion, really. My view, regarding the films I have seen until now, is that they are all Dogme-films, but it is a subject to discussion whether or not anyone has yet made a completely genuine Dogme-film in the purest sense.
Rule number 10 states that the director must not be credited. None of you are actually mentioned on the reel, but that must be the only place you haven’t been credited in the light of the huge publicity that has surrounded your films.
“I have been asked about that rule many times. The idea behind it is of a very symbolic nature – that we renounce our roles as artists, as aesthetes. Focus should not be on our personal works, it is the registration of what goes on in front of us that is important. We have never been able to play the game of keeping us a secret, and it would conflict with the idea of regarding ourselves as missionaries. All the media hype surrounding the project has had the effect that we desired – to send out a provocation. As a result, most of the world thinks we created Dogme as a publicity stunt.”
But surely you haven’t been blind to the fact that it could attract some attention…
“I must confess that when I started work on a film about incest on video and in Danish it wasn’t exactly driven by cynical commercial ambitions – I had no idea it would reach this far. One of the main objectives for me has been to avoid mediocrity – my own and the mediocrity I see around me. To try and shake off the sense and professionalism that is stifling so many initiatives. Cinema is becoming one of the most conservative art forms and I believe that a provocation of cinema as an art form was very much in its place. It was an obvious idea: To shake off the automatic patterns of action and force yourself into a situation where you show some courage – to reintroduce the element of risk in filmmaking.”
Soon all four films by the original Dogme-brethren will have been released, and a couple of other directors have also made a Dogme-film. How much will it take before Dogme 95 turns into convention itself?
“I believe that has already happened. Of course that is my experience because I am standing in the middle of it and have been talking about it for a year. And because I know that in the advertising business they are now lighting in a special way to make it as ugly and as Dogme-like as possible. And I can see that we now have a different kind of auto pilot – you simply press a Dogme-button, and in a way that disappoints me a little. The idea in my eyes was to provoke some people into saying: Look at what you can get out of a lamp. Look at what you can do with a big set. In a way I feel that a lot of people have just fallen into line without really thinking about what they are doing – I must admit I had hoped that the provocation would have the opposite effect.”
How could that have manifested itself?
“It could have resulted in some people saying: Let’s show these Dogme-guys what you can do with aesthetics. That would have taken Danish cinema away from the middle of the road so we wouldn’t be getting all these mid-budget films. That’s what it’s provoked me to do. It’s a big word, but making a Dogme-film is a kind of purification where you get rid of all the tools you normally have at your disposal. And then the next time you use them, a year and a half later, it really means something for you when you use a lamp. That was the idea in my eyes: That we could create that effect within the business that it was possible to make films in a different way – thereby stressing the value of the big movie spectaculars.”
Does that mean that you are prepared to go on the record here on the Dogme home page telling potential Dogme-directors that they should find themselves something else to do?
“Yes. If you see it as an attempt to renew the film business, I think it is too late – after all Dogme 95 in my eyes has become convention in itself. There is of course the moderation that the various countries around the world have discovered Dogme at different rates and actually I do believe that it has to be good for any director to make a Dogme-film at some stage. Because if you feel that you have been bogged down in mediocrity it is a fabulous escape route and a good family to join.”
Can you compare it to a fast – it’s supposed to be very healthy to fast for a week or two to clean out your system?
“Yes, you could say that – it is exactly the same thing here.”
But that doesn’t mean that you should spend the rest of your life fasting?
“No, because my point is that one of the basic ideas in all this is to create renewal. And if you just repeat that renewal then you’re really back where you started. So I wouldn’t be able to make a Dogme-film now. I would find it claustrophobic and a repetitive – I know how it is done. My way of combating that is making something extravagant and spectacular next time.”
What do you say we simply call the headline of this article: “Don’t do it”?
Is it too provocative? What about: “It’s too late”?
“Yes, I like that better. “In a way it’s too late”. Or maybe you should write “Dogme is dead!” The explanation is simple: That Dogme is turning into convention exactly like the conventions we tried to avoid, and that is the end initiatives like this must come to. Once, bringing a camera out into the street was a revolution – that’s no longer the case. The hand held camera was also a revolution once – now it’s driving everybody crazy, that was the case already before Dogme. “It’s too late” – that’s probably the best one, don’t you think?”