Dogme 95 (or Dogma 95 – it’s the same thing) was a cinematic movement that created a set of filmmaking rules that aimed to ‘purify’ films, removing predictability, complacency and distraction, forcing filmmakers to focus on the story, actors, and their skills as a director, with the hope that this would increase the chance of creating something with greater “truth”.
The rules, dubbed the Vows of Chastity, were unveiled on March 13th, 1995 in Paris by four Danish filmmakers: Lars Von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, Kristian Levring and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen. The four of them made up the Dogme Brethren.
The Dogme Vows of Chastity in full:
I swear to submit to the following set of rules drawn up and confirmed by DOGMA 95:
- Shooting must be done on location.
- Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.)
- The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.)
- The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
- The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera.)
- Optical work and filters are forbidden.
- The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
- Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)
- Genre movies are not acceptable.
- The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
- The director must not be credited.
Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a “work”, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.
The first film produced in accordance with these rules was Dogme #1 Festen, by Vintenberg, which received its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1998, where it won the Jury award.
With this clear set of rules and a desire to hamstring yourself, anyone can just make a Dogme film, right? Wrong. Like all egalitarian movements there is a tasty layer of bureaucracy to legitimise it. To officially be a Dogme film it needed to be certified by the Dogmesecretariat, who would then let you put a nice crest at the start of your film so everyone knows that when you say “I keeps it real”, that you really keeps it real. The dogmesecretariat said you keeps it real.
If your creative flame has been sparked by the thought of only being able shoot while holding the camera and you fancy joining the Dogme corps, well I’m afraid you’ve missed the boat. The dogmesecretariat is no more. It was officially (there’s a surprising amount of officiating in these liberalising movements) closed down in 2005, with Von Trier and Vinterberg, the two most successful directors in the movement, believing that Dogme had itself become a genre.
So what did Dogme achieve? Well the films made under its rules don’t exactly constitute a grand canon. Aside from Festen there’s Von Trier’s The Idiots, Schefrig’s Italian For Beginners, and that’s kind of it. The rest of the films exist more a curios rather than celebrated works.
Dogme was arguably important as a loud alternative voice to the increasingly commercialised and big budget films coming out of Hollywood in the 90s. Considering that by 1995 Terminator 2, Jurassic Park and Forest Gump (which employed a lot of special effects in the flashbacks) had accumulated massive cultural weight, with Jurassic Park in particular heralding a new sort of high-concept, effects driven, summer blockbuster that would make more money than God, it is understandable that some filmmakers would feel the need to make a clear and vocal opposition to this trend in cinema.
But the truth is Dogme had little impact at the time and its lasting effect on cinema is negligible. The fact that its two most prominent members moved away completely from it (Antichrist and Melancholia anyone?) suggest it was an interesting, perhaps even noble, experiment in creation rather than a new and substantial type of film.The extreme limitations imposed by the Vows were not workable outside of experiments. In the Idiots, just the 2nd Dogme film, Von Trier revealed a number of contraventions of the rules had occurred in the making of the film. But most ridiculous of all, in order to adhere to the rule about the avoidance of non-diegetic sound in a scene where he wanted music, he got someone to play a harmonica behind the camera. Sure, that’s technically within the rules, but hardly in the spirit of them. And how exactly did that trickery improve the film or derive a greater “truth” over using non-diegetic, pre-recorded sound?
Dogme’s biggest failing is that it looked to impose a kind of retardation on cinema without offering any innovations. The objective, to return the focus to story and acting, is admirable, but so many of the rules are rules for the sake of rules.
The Dogme movement wanted to create a set of parameters that would encourage the revelation of truth in films, but with their tricksy rule bending, they actually perpetrated a hoodwinking of the audience, perhaps one even more disingenuous than Hollywood.
At least Steven Spielberg never tried to pass off the raptors, T-rex and Jeff Goldblum as being real live creatures.