Chris Cassingham


Saunas, Funkytown and the consciousness of plants at CPH:DOX 2023

A raft of innovative and thoughtful world premieres stood out at Copenhagen's annual documentary festival, which moves from autumn to spring.

The Copenhagen Documentary Festival, known as CPH:DOX, has quickly established itself as one of the most progressive and exciting documentary festivals in the world, consistently showcasing films at the leading edge of the documentary form, and even embracing a willingness to disregard the often rigid boundaries between fiction and non-fiction filmmaking. In 2023, the festival celebrated its 20th edition, which included a new place in the calendar (Spring, instead of Autumn which put it in competition with the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, or IDFA), and a main competition programme made up, for the first time, entirely of world premieres.

As a first-time attendee of CPH:DOX I was quick to discover that great cinema lies not just in the festival’s main competition; so in that spirit that, here is a rundown of highlights from this year’s edition.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

Anna Hints’ first feature is an intimate depiction of care, empathy, and sisterhood. Her camera favours an intimate focus on women’s bodies and faces, which celebrates their softness and warmth, and finds pleasure in every curve as they share stories of sex, abuse, love, and arousal. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is also, as suggested by the title, an encounter with an ancient cultural practice, in which the Estonian smoke sauna acts as a site of solidarity and soul cleansing. What is most striking, however, in a film full of striking imagery, is the way Hints explores what it means to distribute the burden of vulnerability. In the sauna’s close quarters, where we might expect claustrophobia, repeatedly shifting our view to the listener instead of the speaker is a radical gesture of openness.

Last Year of Darkness

It’s one thing for a film to accurately capture the experience of a wild night out. It’s another for it to understand its underlying emotional stakes. Benjamin Mullinkosson’s The Last Year of Darkness, which earned a special mention from the NEXT:WAVE jury, is a film about these stakes. Having lived in the Chinese city of Chengdu himself, Mullinkosson’s portrait of its queer underground party scene, whose nexus is a club called Funkytown, is steeped in loving familiarity. His camera knows these characters – who include, among others, a baby drag queen, and a bi-curious Russian DJ – and it balances an intimate, probing view with respectful detachment, like a friend who knows when to give another space. When the film begins Funkytown is in trouble, though we don’t know it just yet, so there’s no telling when these nights of ecstasy might suddenly be a relic of the past. For Chengdu’s queer youth, there is a tragic irony in knowing that while no one club can define their spirits, there may soon be no place for those spirits to be truly free.

On the Edge

Nicolas Peduzzi’s portrait of a psychiatrist in a struggling, underfunded Parisian hospital is a vital report on the healthcare industry without ever resorting to preachiness. Our hero, Jamal, is not yet 40, suffers from exhaustion and backache, yet whose commitment to his patients never wavers. By focusing on one doctor On the Edge, which earned a special mention from the DOX:AWARD jury, is allowed the freedom to be both an engrossing character study and a sharp social comment. Whether he’s telling them hard truths about their treatment, or leading theatre exercises and Shakespeare lessons, Jamal’s practice is the embodiment of perseverance in spite of faceless government that might rather his patients be left behind.


Alexander Mihalkovich and Hanna Badziaka won this year’s DOX:AWARD, CPH:DOX’s top prize, with Motherland, a stark and involving portrait of mounting military and police violence in Russia’s neighboring ally, Belarus. There are dual meanings to be found in the title. The first most obviously references Belarus’s notoriously violent and abusive military culture, which demands the devotion of countless young men to the “motherland”. But tracing the periphery of the film is a different kind of motherland. Here a series of letters, based on Mikalkovich’s own experiences in the military, are the driving force of one mother’s quest for justice for the death of her son. Her storyline runs parallel with that of a group of angry young adults wisening up to Belarus’ state-sanctioned violence; both illuminate a constellation of injustices and burgeoning solidarity in a country entering its rebellious phase.

Queer Futures

A trio of short documentaries, collectively entitled Queer Futures, made their World Premieres in the Special Presentations section. Each construct a style and visual syntax thoughtfully tailored to their subject matter, ranging from lush, languid expressionism in Sasha Wortzel’s How to Carry Water, a portrait of queer, fat photographer, Shoog McDaniel; immediate and lively realism in Twiggy Pucci Garcon’s MnM, a loving profile of her ballroom performer “daughters”, Mermaid and Milan; and a blend of relatable directness and knowing playfulness in Britt Fryer and Noah Schamus’, The Script, which constructs fantasy (and nightmare) enactments of trans healthcare scenarios.

Different though their visions of the future may be, all signs point toward optimism, as exemplified by the premiere’s evening of partying, celebration, and mutual support. The premiere coincided with the festival’s Queer Lab: a weekend of talks, workshops, and community building amongst queer artists in the documentary space, aimed at centering joy and liberation instead of trauma. If Queer Futures sets the precedent for this kind of newly imagined queer documentary practice, then the future is bright.

Light Needs

Jesse McLean’s film, Light Needs, is interested in serious, existential inquiry, so it’s all to the film’s benefit that her philosophical probing is conveyed with such delight and whimsy (at one point literally giving voice to a group of plants and letting them have a conversation with each other). Light Needs is a multifaceted inquiry into the consciousness of plants; by taking us on a journey into the many forms and methods of plant care and ownership, the film arrives not at a new discovery or revelation of, but at a refreshingly lucid argument for, the unknowability of plant life.


Agniia Galdanova’s Queendom, which won the NEXT:WAVE award, does something quite special. What begins as an intimate profile of Gena, a queer, Russian performance artist who stages confronting protest-performances in elaborate costumes on the streets of Moscow, slowly becomes a radical extension of Gena’s artistic own practice. We don’t merely watch her performances through Galdanova’s eyes – we begin to experience them the way Gena does, as fraught, nightmarish embodiments of the impact of Russia’s oppressive conservatism. Given the stress of political persecution and the threat of daily harassment, it’s a small miracle that Gena has the energy to create such arresting and ferocious art, and it’s our privilege to witness it.

CPH:DOX 2023 ran from 15 to 26 March, 2023, in Copenhagen, Denmark. 

Published 12 Apr 2023


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