If you’ve never heard of Dogme 95, a quick Google search tells that it’s a now-defunct film collective started in 1995 by Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Seen as avant-garde at the time, Dogme 95 operated under a strict set of guidelines, referred to as “The Vow of Chastity,” which called for character development, actor immersion, purity of form and focus on story. In short, they were creating a movement to counter the big-budget, highly-effected Hollywood pictures that were becoming increasingly popular at the time (top three U.S. domestic grosses of 1995 were Toy Story, Batman Forever, and Apollo 13).
As a third year film grad student at the University of Texas at Austin, I enrolled in a directing class where I would create my own Dogme 95 short film. The experience was a mixture of whirlwind and calm, the old and the new, boundaries and freedom.
The Rules AKA "The Vow of Chastity"
But, taking a closer look at just one Dogme film shows that the rules were more flexible than a title like “Vow of Chastity” may suggest.
Festen (The Celebration) directed by Vinterberg, was released in 1998 and became the movement’s most well-known and successful feature. The plot revolves around an upper-class family gathering gone awry, in the most secret-baring, life-ruining way possible. It’s one of those films that changes the way you’ve ever thought about cinema, and challenges what “normal” movies are “supposed to look like.” It is quintessentially Dogme: focusing heavily on dynamic relationships between well-developed characters and featuring a kinetic and frenzied cinematic style.
But let’s be clear: in the strictest sense, The Celebration is not a Dogme 95 film.
Yes, it received the official seal of approval, and yes, it remains the best-known of all the Dogme projects. But but closer analysis reveals that in making his film, Vinterberg broke several of his own Dogme rules. The film not only features a ghostly dream sequence, but it’s famous cinematography by DP Anthony Dod Mantle was shot on Mini-DV. Vinterberg also later revealed that in one scene a window was covered, thus breaking rule #4: “Special lighting is not acceptable.”
But would anyone really argue that The Celebration is not a Dogme film? Of course not, because, most importantly, it’s consistent with the Dogme spirit. In the end, Dogme 95 wasn’t about the rules, though they received much of the attention. Dogme 95 was about bringing the humanity back to cinema, exposing the seams, and making filmmaking publicly accessible.
Dogme 95 in 2015
I enrolled in the Advanced Directing (Dogme) class at UT as I entered my third year of film grad school in fall 2015. I had directed a personal documentary the year before and was looking forward to working both with actors and a fictional, non-personal story (I partly failed– more on that later). The first month of the class consisted of us twelve directors learning Sanford Meisner-style acting techniques: staying in the moment, finding the conflict, listening and responding to our partners. We were told to work with real feelings and challenges so for one class I brought an apology card I was writing to my real-life ex-boyfriend and allowed my scene partner to read it on stage. It was weird. But my classmates responded positively and I realized working honestly nearly always has engaging results.
During the second month, we were introduced to our actors. I was assigned two undergraduate actresses: Hannah Holub and Emily Vialpando. The first thing I noticed: I am named Hannah and one of my actresses is named Hannah; my oldest and closest friend is named Emily and one of my actresses is named Emily. Yes, they’re both common names but you can’t discount these coincidences when searching for inspiration. Second thing I noticed: Hannah and Emily couldn’t be more dissimilar. While Hannah is blonde, polite, sweet and smiley, Emily is wild, intense, blunt and brunette. I decided to work with this. For the next month we rehearsed weekly, using scenarios ranging from Hannah getting the acting gig for which both she and Emily auditioned to Emily telling Hannah that she was pregnant. The dialogue was entirely improvised and I videotaped each rehearsal, rewatching them later while writing the script.
In the end, the script was based partly on what had and hadn’t worked in our rehearsals, partly on my actresses’ on- and off-stage personas, and partly (this is where I failed from before) on my own real-life friendship with my best friend. Hannah, Emily and I had decided from day one that we wanted to make a short film about real-life friendship: about the good and bad stuff that comes with having and being a best girlfriend in your late teens. This means silliness and fierce loyalty and a celebration of femininity but it also means jealousy and competition and being a straight-up asshole sometimes. We didn’t want our film to be easy, because honestly, what long-term friendship is?
Loving and Leaving at Patterson Park
We shot for one day at Patterson Park in Austin, TX. It was the most relaxed film shoot I have ever worked on. I directed and operated camera, my friend Sebastián did sound, and Hannah and Emily did their thing with the words, which were both mine and theirs. I encouraged them to improvise where it felt right, and in the end while editing, I cut out a lot of the very obvious, expository dialogue I had written and allowed the girls to just be friends on camera.
So, do I think my film deserves Dogme 95 accreditation? Technically, no. But in spirit, absolutely. It’s an honest film about messy human relationships. And, in true Dogme style, I broke four of the original rules.
I shot on a Canon 5D.
I brought not one but two props to set.
I color corrected a couple of scenes.
I took directorial credit.
If there’s anything I learned from the Dogme 95 movement it’s push the boundaries and break the rules, even if they happen to be your own.
Hannah T Bailey is Zacuto's 2015 award recipient for the Zacuto Innovation in Filmmaking Award offered through the CineAid Film Festival.
We at Zacuto are thrilled to be honoring a filmmaker who embodies Innovation in Filmmaking. 'Necessity is the mother of invention' - and the filmmaking community is the perfect embodiment of that phrase. Filmmakers have a need to create and share their voice and passion, and innovation and invention has sprung from that need time and time again. From the leap to sound and color in film to the DSLR revolution and shooting with an iPhone, filmmakers will always find a way.
"Innovation is key to both my personal philosophy and to what we do here at Zacuto. When I started to focus more on producing video for the web, many people told me I was nuts. But I knew that I needed to embrace a new media in order to share my story. As filmmakers we need to challenge the expected and never be afraid to try new things." - Steve Weiss, Director and Zacuto founder