With the documentary market recently inundated with Syria-themed titles, one title is emerging as the most decorated of the lot. Two months after scooping the Grand Jury Prize in Sundance’s world documentary competition, Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad’s harrowing, immersive war-zone study “Last Men in Aleppo” has also triumphed at CPH:DOX, Copenhagen’s eminent all-doc festival.
Fayyad’s film, which follows a hardy group of White Helmets volunteers at the frontline of the conflict in Aleppo, was handed the top prize in the festival’s premier DOX:AWARD section, by a jury whose members included Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer (“The Act of Killing”), Sundance programmer Caroline Libresco, Patricipant Media’s Laura Kim, Marie-Pierre Macia and Renata Santoro. It was also something of a home-turf victory for the Danish co-production, which was co-directed by Dane Steen Johannessen.
The jury described “Last Men in Aleppo” as “a film whose devastating emotional immediacy plunges us into a Shakespearean tragedy of a people striving to retain their humanity in the face of impossible realities.” Reviewing the film at Sundance for Variety, this critic declared it “viscerally immediate [and] exquisitely realized” and “a standout candidate for crossover distribution.” Copenhagen-based outfit DR Sales is handling international sales.
“Gray House,” an enigmatic fusion of documentary and video art that marks an auspicious feature debut for Austin Lynch — son of revered auteur David — was given a special mention by the jury, as was “The John Dalli Mystery,” a real-life political thriller from Danish director Jeppe Rønde — returning to documentary filmmaking after his stylish 2015 festival favorite “Bridgend.”
Winners in the festival’s other strands included Reber Dosky’s “Radio Kobani,” another Syria-set endurance story; it won the F:ACT Award, with Saul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau’s “Trophy” given a special mention. Danish filmmaker Camilla Magid’s “Land of the Free,” which documents social strife in Los Angeles’ South Central district, took the NORDIC:DOX Award, with Egil Håskjold Larsen’s “69 Minutes of 86 Days” as runner-up. The NEW:VISION Award, for documentaries that incorporate visual art, went to Zhou Chen’s “Life Imitation,” with a special mention for Ane Hjort Guttu and Daisuke Kosugi’s “The Lost Dreams of Naoki Hayakawa.” Finally, the inaugural NEXT:WAVE Award for emerging filmmakers was won by Marcos Migliavacca and Nahuel Lahora for “1996 Lucy and the Corpses in the Pool,” with a special mention for Wattanapume Laisuwanchai’s “Phantom of Illumination.”
The awards cap a successful transitional edition of CPH:DOX, now in its fourteenth year. Having previously occupied an early-November slot in the calendar, organizers of the lively Danish fest decided to sit out 2016 in order to shift proceedings to the springier climes of March. A new festival center has also been established in the scenic harborside location of Kunsthal Charlottenborg. With Oscar-nominated musician and artist Anohni as guest curator, this year’s program boasted over 200 films, 75 of them world premieres; the festival closes on Sunday.