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Freedom Through Restraint: The Vows of Dogme 95

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 7/4/2011

Out of northern Europe we received a commandment to return film to a form of realistic honesty. The Dogme 95 movement intends to do this by rejecting the modern staples of film.

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    A Vision of Reality

    Because the film business exists as such a public and profitable industry that synergizes with various merchandising and franchising properties people often forget that the medium itself is primarily an artistic one. As the technology developed and the “blockbuster” model became the essential standard many artists felt alienated because their vision for expression was not represented by the popular model of studio or independent film. Once digital video broke through the classist divide that was erected from the cost of film stock a pair of Scandinavian filmmakers were able to strike back with a movement that was aimed at rejection of the artificiality that is manufactured in Hollywood. This push toward a certain type of creative abstinence was titled Dogme 95.

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    Film Terrorism

    The Dogme 95 movement took many queues from previous artistic attacks on rising conventions, such as surrealism and No Wave. The idea was first birthed in Scandinavia by Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier, who has been made famous in the states with films like Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. Together they called on other Danish filmmakers and drafted a manifesto hailing that film died in the sixties as technology became the primary focus on the field. The manifesto was announced in 1995, acting as an anarchist declaration of independence from consumptive culture. To counter this they are putting together a list of obstructions they must follow in this coming period called the “Vow of Chastity.”

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    Obstructions

    There are ten set rules of abstinence that must be followed when making a Dogme film. The first is that all shooting has to be done on an existing location, and any prop or item in that location had to have been there before filming began. Nothing is to be added to the scene to help create an artificial world. All sound must be from the location as the events are being filmed, meaning nothing can be added later. This includes music, sound effects, or background sound. The camera must be a handheld device as there are to be no intrusive film cameras in the traditional sense. It has to be in color and, just as with the location and sound; all lighting has to be entirely natural. This does not mean that lights cannot be used, but they have to be from the location and cannot be altered to fit the visuals of the scene. There cannot be any sort of effects or filters added to the film, whether done in post or right up on set. The story itself is banned from having “superficial action,” which serves as hyperreal things such as excessive violence. You cannot try and create a world of its own time and place. All locations must be represented as they exist and not as an altered creation for the film. For example, you cannot have a room in one house look as though it is in the same building as another room. Each location has to be respected as its own place, as everything needs to be “in the here and now.” The film cannot be generic, meaning that there cannot be a story that fits into an established genre of any sort. Since the idea of the “individual film” is being challenged, the director is not permitted to take a credit. Lastly, the film must be brought from digital video to 35mm film in a full aspect ratio.

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    Artistic Mutilation

    Each of these challenges is meant to force the artist to absolve themselves of ego and work creatively without relying on the modern cliché of the film machine. The Dogme movement has openly declared that in the contemporary film world audiences are lied to and manipulated, and therefore there must be an honesty between the real world that is being filmed and what if finally seen by the audience.

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    Temporary Commitment

    Dogme 95 has continued to be an avenue for many filmmakers to enter, usually only making an attempt once or twice to create a Dogme film. As of the end of 2008 there are 340 officially number Dogme films, each of which have been certified by the group to have adequately met the Vow of Chastity during their production. This does not mean that they necessarily are all perfect and many of them stray from the rule. Most notably Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey Boy had a few minor props and violent images were added to advance the story. The website itself contains information about each film, usually listing the name of the director.

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    The Costs Are Significant

    Making a Dogme film yourself is not a way to cut costs by any means. The official Dogme 95 website states that the average Dogme film costs a million dollars or more and that its “bare bones” approach has nothing to do with lowering the budget. If you are considering approaching film in this fashion then it is important to go through all of the financial motions that you would with any feature production. Remember that the film transfer itself is going to be a significant part of your total post-production budget.

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    Features

    The Vow of Chastity is detailed, but there are other rules that people are intended to follow. These mainly come from the fact that the conception of Dogme was to change a certain type of film. This means that short films cannot be considered for inclusion into the Dogme canon.

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    Dogme 95

    Once you have it planned out you can submit your project as a Dogme film to be numbered and established as part of the movement. This is the certification, and though no one is going to come after you if in fact you painted the walls of a certain room in which you filmed, it is important that you maintain the ideals behind the manifesto. The movement itself is one of absolute constriction, but its birth has been meant to inspire a body of work that will make a mark on the progressing world of film and mass communication as a whole. With this you can try and conform to these principles for the period of production, or simply take some of the values and use them to create a profound statement on film.