Les États généraux du film documentaire 2010 Fragment of a filmmaker's work: Jørgen Leth

Fragment of a filmmaker's work: Jørgen Leth

Jørgen Leth is not an unknown name in documentary circles but who really is familiar with his work? As an extension of the “Doc History” programme devoted this year to Denmark, we wanted to review the films of this great cineast, author and artist.

Many spectators discovered Jørgen Leth alongside Lars von Trier in The Five Obstructions (2003), in which he did five remakes of his short The Perfect Human (1967) complying with the rigid rules imposed by Lars von Trier.
Whereas The Perfect Human comes across as an UFO in the world of documentary, The Five Obstructions testifies − aside from the absurd challenges and evident sense of play shared by the two directors − to the qualities, creativity and inventiveness of Jørgen Leth, qualities visible throughout his entire filmography made up of more than forty films.

Born in 1937 in Aarhus, he studied anthropology and literature before becoming a journalist and critic, notably of music (jazz) and film, but also of sport, himself being a sportsman (cyclist and tennis player). He wrote poetry and published his first volume in 1962. At the same time, Jørgen Leth started to make films with a group of friends working within the collective ABCinema. Constrained by lack of funds and desiring to overcome technical limits, the film-makers tried to free themselves from cinematic conventions and narratives. This new approach created a tone of freedom found at the same period in the films of the "Nouvelle Vague", in particular in the work of Jean-Luc Godard who was a major influence on Jørgen Leth.

From the polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (with his method of participatory observation) to Michel Foucault, from Edward Hopper to René Magritte not to mention Bertolt Brecht, John Cage and Robert Frank, the influences of Jørgen Leth often come from outside film and are as diverse as his production. There is a visible will, that of the poet, to experiment with language, written or cinematic, and to construct his films without systematically following traditional narrative logic. Often, their construction echoe that of paintings by Hopper, or the photography of Robert Frank where the form is an elaboration on the scenes and gestures of daily life. By a process of recontextualisation, these scenes seem to have undergone a treatment of alienation in the style of Bertolt Brecht, or perhaps a temporal rehandling close to the musical researches of John Cage. This method of construction is always accompanied by a deeply human, critical or ironic point of view. A falsely naïve anthropological way of looking which dissects our biases, in particular concerning our relationships with the other, or our enclosure within the conventions of daily life.

And so, anthropologist and poet, Jørgen Leth put together a rich, varied, fascinating series of films, viewing the world with a sense of astonishment worthy of Aristotle − often more revealing than a simple analytical approach. He represented this world via cinematic forms which make us more aware of our way of looking, and the poetic power of cinema. Whether it be his portraits of artists or sportsmen, his “travel” films to China, Haïti or the United States, or his “anthropological” films dealing with the phenomena of modern society, the work of Jørgen Leth shows some constants such as this Aristotelian astonishment and the poetic exploration of film language. Excluding neither an ironic and/or a critical point of view.

The selected programme takes into account these recurring traits throughout the diversity of Jørgen Leth's work. His taste for play, in front of the camera or with film language as shown in The Five Obstructions; his experiments in Stop for Bud, Near Heaven, Near Earth, Life in Denmark (included in the “Doc History” programme), Good and Evil and Motion Picture; his fascination for great sportsmen in A Sunday in Hell; his anthropological point of view in Haïti. Untitled and his curiosity for the exotic, indeed the erotic (subject of his upcoming film) in The Erotic Human of which Tropical Mix is a foretaste. We should also note the articulation between work on the image and musical temporality in New Scenes from America and 66 Scenes from America, whose famous sequence with Andy Warhol is emblematic of Jørgen Leth's whole approach: carefully composed with room left for chance.

Jørgen Leth is an author-filmmaker of great originality who invites the spectator to take part in the elaboration of his films in the sense that he observes more than he attempts to provide answers. Work to be (re)discovered!

Kees Bakker

Presentation and debates by Kees Bakker. In the presence of Jørgen Leth.