On Dogma, Storytelling, and Truth in Film

According to Dogme 95, the group of film directors responsible for the ten dogmas of filmmaking set forth in the “Vow of Chastity”, film has been shackled to the Hegelian system of thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis. In the last 50 years especially, “the anti-bourgeois cinema itself became bourgeois, because the foundations upon which its theories were based was the bourgeois perception of art … [which is] false.” It is the goal of the Vow to liberate film by forgoing supposed self-indulgent and profligate filming techniques and practices, and thus become, as the name suggests, pure and true. Even so, it does not appear that, at least through the method of the Vow and its first approved film “The Celebration”, the exodus has been fully achieved.

Instead, the Hegelian circle has been exchanged for a circular wandering in the wilderness. One captor has been replaced with another less obvious one: the “Vow of Chastity” itself. Thus, film as “art is endlessly in motion, led forward on the trek by the great souls who are the avant-garde, always forsaking home, never arriving at the promised land. For the trek is thePromise.” And yet, though the Vow is fraught with difficulty from the outset, the film produced under it is remarkable.
In speaking of falsity, the Vow and “The Celebration” have charged that the conventions of contemporary film have “wash[ed] the last grains of truth away.” The main end for which the majority of filmmakers strive is, accordingly, to “fool the audience”. Nevertheless, however one may appraise contemporary film, alleging a deliberate concealing of truth does not hold. Though the story of “The Celebration” is tremendous, the very idea that it is story (indeed fiction) causes problems for truth-telling, a purpose for which the “Vow of Chastity” was created. If the task of both poetry and film is storytelling, then it does not seem unreasonable to draw from one medium in order to better understand the other. In his famed Apology for Poetry, Sir Philip Sydney remarked:

Now the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth. For as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false…. But the poet (as I said before) never affirmeth…. And therefore, though he recount things not true, yet because he telleth them not for true, he lieth not – without which we will say that Nathan lied in his speech before-alleged to David; which as a wicked man durst scarce say, so think I none so simple would say that Aesop lied in the tales of his beasts; for who thinks that Aesop writ it for actually true were well worthy to have his name chronicled among the beasts he writeth of.


The notion of “telling for true” corresponds to truth in our world. However, in literature or film, or any other means of storytelling, the dramatis personae, while they may relate to our world, belong to the specific world of the work of art. With respect to “The Celebration”, the Klingenfeldts could very well be a faithful and credible Danish family, and yet, even if they are patterned after a real particular family, they exist only in the film. That is, their existence is not universal. The family may have an analogue in our own world, but because the film is a work of fiction, the family, however convincing they might be, cannot exist in our own world. Hence, the realism sought after by the Vow, and so then the film, cannot be completely and wholly attained. Furthermore, the ten dogmas of “Vow of Chastity”, with their “supreme goal [being] to force the truth out of [the] characters and settings” , appear perilously close to arbitrary. For example, dogmas eight and nine declare genre films unacceptable and Academy 35 mm as the only allowable film format, respectively. One wonders how these commandments will help to recover truth in film (a truth that it is not yet certain has been, or can be, lost).

“The Celebration” in addition, does not fully abide by the “Vow of Chastity”. In the scene where Christian dreams of his deceased sister, the two appear together conversing. Dogmas six and seven however prohibit superficial action and temporal and geographical alienation. If the film is being “told for true” as is intimated in the desire for realism, then certainly his conversation with a ghost falls outside the bounds of the Vow.
Considered apart from the Vow, the film on its own recovers in an extraordinary fashion the importance of plot, character, emotion, and nuance in story. After Christian delivers his speech, revealing his father Helge’s incestuous past, the celebration of Helge’s birthday continues morbidly unabated. The film confronts the viewer with such common and macabre pomp and circumstance. The gait of the film is steady and slow, forcing other “non-action” elements such as dialogue, character profile, and expression to provide the interest and drama, in the best sense of the term. All of these traits, though combining to tell a great story, are however, not necessarily connected to the “Vow of Chastity”.

“The Celebration” with or without the Vow, is a fantastic film: challenging, thoughtful, and probing, with a wonderful cast. The “Vow of Chastity” on the other hand, appears misguided. While it will certainly find many agreeable to the diagnosis it offers of the ailments of contemporary film, it is, at worst, its own enemy, a new bourgeois conception of film as art, and at best, an inconsistent and troubled attempt to recover the art of actual storytelling.
The desire to escape the dreariness of contemporary film is laudable. Still, if the “Vow of Chastity” is to be the way of escape, it would do well to note that the one who forsakes sensational fascination, marketing, superficiality, action, cosmetic gratuity, and technology – that is, whatever conventions are used as the framework for mainline contemporary film – in order to pursue film unadorned, stripped bare of all accoutrements, has not rid himself of conventions; he has simply chosen another set of conventions by which to order the new film. Moreover the new conventions are by no means less artificial or pure or true than the old. As the saying goes, nakedness is a sartorial choice.




By: Zack Purvis
Expected Graduation Date: August 2006
Major: Mathematics
Hometown: Vancouver, WA
I appreciated the way in which “The Celebration” was made, with a strong emphasis on plot, setting, character development – all the important elements of a story, and the story itself was indeed interesting. Viewing the film in light of the “Vow of Chastity” was somewhat difficult, especially with respect to how serious one ought to take the Vow as a definitive statement on art and film.