The Five Obstructions: A Peek Into the Filmmaker’s Mind

If there was one thing that The Five Obstructions taught me, it was that art is ever-changing. It is not a still life portrait that will forever be the same, even if it was recreated multitudes of times and by the same artist. Jorgen Leth challenges himself in this documentary by trying to recreate his short film The Perfect Human five times, but each time with a twist given by Lars von Trier. What seemed to be a fun game at first turned out to be a very gruesome and tiring experience for the director, as von Trier’s requests become more and more absurd throughout the documentary.

His first obstruction, which was that it must be set in Cuba without a studio and only twelve frames per shot. A regular viewer such as I found this very challenging, but Leth came out successful with an interesting remake, although quite dizzying to watch. It was fun to see the process behind the filmmaking, such as the film crew’s travel to Cuba, their process of picking the actors, and watching Leth direct. Once von Trier sees it though, he is unsatisfied and wants to test the director even further. The second obstruction was to film in the worst place in the world but not show it onscreen, and, additionally, Leth must play the main character.

Hearing “the worst place in the world” would already appear to be daunting for some, but the director quickly attributed the prompt to his experience in the red light district of Mumbai, where he encountered the slum area. Before they even reached their destination, it was disheartening to see a mother carrying her child asking for alms and food outside of Leth’s vehicle. Out of all of the obstructions, this was the most disturbing to watch since you could see the faces of the children as they saw Leth eat a fancy meal with a straight face right in front of them.

Upon seeing the second remake, von Trier says that Leth failed the task and wants him to go back to redo it as he wished. This is where the tension between the two starts to rise, since the latter says that it is too inhumane and he wouldn’t do it again. With his morals compromised, he decides to go with the other equally difficult option: to recreate his film in any way he chooses. As someone who also does art, it was frightening to have complete freedom over your art. Maybe it’s the external expectation, or the internal one that it should be better than the last, that affected Leth the most. Yet he was able to recreate it beautifully once again through a split-screen effect. Leth almost even breezed through the fourth obstruction, which was to make his film into a cartoon—a genre that both he and von Trier hate. He exceeded the audience’s expectations by creating one of the more beautiful masterpieces throughout the whole documentary, with the help of a professional animator.

The fifth and final obstruction was ironically the one that needed the least effort from Leth’s: that it would be made by von Trier but will be credited as the former’s work. It was unsettling to think that was possible to give so much power to someone over a film, but the output was interesting nonetheless. Overall, the documentary makes viewers think what it means to be a filmmaker and what is needed to make a good film. It relies on many things such as cinematography, editing, directing, acting, and the like, but also does not. What we learn from both von Trier and Leth is that films evoke emotions and thoughts from its audience, no matter the time, place and age, but one should still have fun in the process.

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