Beyond the Manifesto: The Dogme Legacy

Dogme95 was an avant-garde filmmaking movement started in 1995 by the Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Dogme95 was made up of a set of rules to create filmmaking based on traditional values of story, acting and theme, and exclude special effects and technology.

After more than 10 years since the most recent Dogme movie was added to the thirty plus strong catalogue of films by the Dogme Secretariat , the governing board who decided which films were to be added to the movement, Dogme ’95 remains a film movement that has continued to survive in the consciousness of many academics, critics, filmmakers and cinema-goers. Promoting a rigorous level of rule and structure to film-making, that was ironically intended to un-restrain the filmmaker in an attempt to get the truth out of the characters, the Dogme manifesto (and the “Vow of Chastity”) outlined a specific criterion in an attempt to re-centre power back into the hands of the director, as well as prioritising narrative and performance over high-cost special effects and distractive technologies. In abolishing studio shooting, produced sound, non-diegetic soundtrack, unfound props, genre movies, director credit, temporal and geographical alienation, special lighting, and non-colour film, the founding fathers of the movement, Thomas Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier, inadvertently created a call to arms for low-cost DIY filmmaking. This form of filmmaking didn’t require expensive equipment, studios, stars and lavish set design, but established a set of rules that limited in order to allow those outside the studio system to make films that would be taken seriously, despite the lack of money pumped into the development of the film. It is perhaps this lasting effect of Dogme ’95 that provides us with evidence that the movement, despite being played as a quasi-joke reportedly concocted by Vinterberg and Von Trier whilst drunk in the middle of the night (Katerine Waters, 2009), functioned not simply as a flash in the pan ideal, forgotten after the final Dogme movie was accepted,  but served to fundamentally alter the independent filmmaking industry with its attitudes, opening an entirely new avenue of contemporary film-making, untethered to location and uncontrolled by studio executives. Dogme ’95 represented a shift towards the film that dealt with narrative, theme and performance as the central elements of cinema, influenced by realism and the French New Wave movement whilst disregarding technological advances and Hollywood sheen.

Prior to the release of Dogme #1, Festen, and Dogme #2, The Idiots, at Cannes Film Festival in 1998, Dogme originator Lars Von Trier, announced the Dogme ’95 movement at Le cinéma vers son deuxième siècle conference in Paris. The cinema industry had gathered to celebrate the art form as it moved towards its second century of being, and to contemplate the future of film. Von Trier had been asked to deliver a speech on where he believed cinema was headed; instead he took this opportunity to shower the audience with the Dogme Manifesto, announcing the birth of a new movement in Danish cinema that would not only function as a “spit in the eye of Danish tradition” (Vinterberg, 2000), but as an affront to the tradition of contemporary film-making in general, casting out film-making practices that had become a fundamental and supposedly inescapable aspect of film-making in the 1990s. Whilst there was a mixed response to the two films at Cannes, the prevalence and importance of the Dogme movement had been established through the universal attention awarded towards the filmmakers and their first and only forays into Dogme cinema after its conception.

Whilst Dogme originators Vinterberg and Von Trier left the movement behind, moving on to make an eclectic mix of films, both in Danish as well as English language, such as The Hunt, Nymphomaniac, Antichrist, and Far From the Madding Crowd, the ideal established by Dogme 95 remains an integral part of the Independent film industry to this day. The most notable movement influenced by Dogme is arguably the “Mumblecore” movement, spearheaded by the Duplass Brothers, Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg, whose films combine an emphasis on low budget, unprofessional actors and limited to non-existent soundtracks, with low-key comedy and romantic narrative tendencies. Whilst Mumblecore films tend to feel ultimately more light-hearted than Dogme cinema, their existence is identifiably indebted to the Dogme movement, borrowing a number of items from the Vow of Chastity whilst not quite adhering to the inherent rigidity of the manifesto. Whilst this strictness is not present within the Mumblecore movement, the influence of Dogme is evident within early Mumblecore films particularly, such as Funny Ha Ha and The Puffy Chair. Shot entirely with handheld cameras, improvised scripts, unprofessional actors and with little additional lighting or sound, these films function as an American response to the Dogme movement. Less volatile than Dogme’95, the Mumblecore movement seeks to examine human relationships in a naturalistic way, with the emphasis falling heavily on improvisation and in turn avoiding falling into the trap of appearing overwrought or contrived. The narrative takes a back seat, as performance, character development and the relationships between the naturalistic characters serve as the central focus.

Meryl Shriver-Rice comments on the connection between the two movements, “the Dogme 95 Manifesto was meant to challenge professional film-makers, not legitimise all low-budget film movements (such as Mumblecore) and inexperienced film-makers with explicative parameters that include ‘employing strictly non-professional twenty-something actors’.” (Meryl Shriver-Rice, 2015). Whilst she decries the influence of Dogme on the Mumblecore movement, the connection is evident, regardless of the original intentions of Von Trier and Vinterberg. With the manifesto in place, as an open, almost call to arms to filmmakers, the resultant response was to inspire young filmmakers to begin making films despite their constraints, rather than to inspire already accomplished filmmakers to accept the challenge of self-imposed restriction. Whilst the originators may not be happy with the legacy of the Dogme 95 movement when we examine its influence in the creation of a separate movement of cinema it is undeniable that the Dogme 95 movement is an important milestone in cinema.

CategoriesFeatures Issue 13
Christopher Owen

Christopher is a Film Studies Masters student at the University of Warwick. His interests are Danish and Scandanavian cinema, American Independent cinema and experimental music.