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Jørgen Leth: Denmark’s Maestro of Experimental Documentary

Wednesday 27 May, 2020

A new film allows us to take a close look at the thinking behind one of Denmark’s most acclaimed documentary makers, Jørgen Leth. Poet, critic, sports commentator and filmmaker, Leth has made about 50 films since 1963 and was one of the leading lights in Denmark’s 1960s experimental film movement. 

In Gifts of Chance: A Film About Jorgen Leth, Leth talks us through his often maverick approach to filmmaking. His thinking is, in many ways, counterintuitive to the doc filmmaking community: “I reject the psychological narrative - it bores me to death to watch a psychological narrative unfold. I can’t stand it. So I chose another way of interpreting the world,” he says.  

The recipient of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam’s 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award, Leth is an early proponent of hybrid documentary. Contrary, controversial, outspoken and dogmatic, he is also playful and experimental in his approach. He enjoys imposing rules on his own films, such as fixed cameras or completely chronological editing in documentaries, which he faithfully stuck to in his 1976 cycling epic A Sunday in Hell

While lecturing at the Danish Film School, Leth introduced the concept of self-imposed rules to a student — Lars von Trier — who years later came up with his own set of rules, Dogme 95. “There are few things in life in which I consider myself an expert. One of them is Jorgen Leth. I think I know considerably more about him than he does himself,” von Trier has said. 

In 2003, von Trier and Leth came together, at von Trier’s suggestion, to collaborate on The Five Obstructions. Von Trier asked Leth to remake — five times — Leth’s classic 1967 short The Perfect Human, according to arbitrary rules laid down by von Trier. The Five Obstructions is a memorable study of egos and the art of filmmaking. Leth willingly subjects himself to von Trier’s 'diabolical' dictates, which, as the camera records, are decided randomly by von Trier in meetings between the two legendary directors.

Gifts of Chance explores the process behind the making of The Perfect Human, The Five Obstructions and a host of other Leth films. Director Kasper Bech Dyg elegantly combines Leth’s interview with archive from his rich filmography.

With an abundance of Leth’s films available online to view, this represents the perfect opportunity for a lockdown masterclass from one of the leading lights of European documentary.

Here are links to watch some of the films that Leth unpacks in Gifts of Chance

The Perfect Human (1967) - watch here

Leth’s elegant and humorous film - in the guise of a serious anthropological treatise - spotlights The Perfect Human, a model of the modern Dane created by wishful thinking.

In Gifts of Chance, Leth breaks down his approach to the film: “I liked the idea of isolating simple facts and simple objects and giving them their own space. It’s what commercials do and use,” he says. “I like breaking things down and studying them in a magnifying glass...Even the most banal things are interesting if seen with the attention given the framework of the Perfect Human.”

A Sunday in Hell (1976) - watch here

Considered one of the best cycling films ever made, A Sunday in Hell focuses on the 1976 Paris Roubaix single day bike race. The ‘Hell’ in question is the cobbled roads of the north, only used for ‘transporting cattle - and for cycle races.'

With twenty cameras and a helicopter at his disposal, Leth covers the full drama of the race magnificently on the big screen. The film works on several levels: as an introduction to the sport for novices, a must-see for enthusiasts, and, not least, as a glimpse of 1970s rural France. The all-seeing narrator explains every action and behind-the-scenes strategy with flair and obvious relish. 

Leth talks about the making of the film in this Q&A at Watershed from 2011.

66 Scenes from America (1981) - watch here

Internationally acknowledged as a principal work in the history of documentary, Leth’s classic consists of 66 visual postcards of America, circa 1981.

Leth wrote of the project: “It’s a collection of pictures of a country which in many ways is strange and incomprehensible to us, but in which we nevertheless recognize a reflection of our own culture, and to which our dreams - whether we want them or not - must bear a relation.

This is America through a visitor’s eyes: the wide expanses of the desert, the charm of a freshly shaken New York cocktail, the seemingly endless four-way highways. Leth deftly plays with action and word in these evocative tableaux; in their midst is a famous scene involving one Andy Warhol and a hamburger.