The Revival of Creativity: A Discussion on The Five Obstructions

Jørgen Leth in The Five Obstructions

After watching three drama from the 1960s, it felt like a breath of fresh air to stumble upon Lars Von Trier’s The Five Obstructions. Here, he challenges fellow filmmaker Jørgen Leth to remake his short film, A Perfect Human in five different ways. They opted for a documentary style, which enhances the viewing experience since we get to see the work that goes into filmmaking. The development of the characters and their styles become more apparent because we believe we are watching the reality, as opposed following the lives of fictional characters.

Aside from the medium, Von Trier’s playfulness made the film exciting, making the viewers anticipate what other tricks he has up his sleeve. In the beginning, we are quite unsure why Von Trier came up with the obstructions for his mentor. We ask, “What’s the point of the film?” or “Why choose those particular obstructions?” The film asks us to reflect as it presents Leth’s new films. Towards the middle, it becomes clear that the emotional connection between Von Trier and Leth was crucial in pushing the latter to reject his old habits and techniques that prevented him from maximizing his creativity. It was interesting to see how the student taught and criticized the mentor during the challenges. Ironically, the obstructions meant to hinder Leth’s progress or force him to produce a bad film, resulted to compelling, clever new films that he would not have produced were it not for Von Trier. Leth, himself was astonished, and you can see his development throughout the film. He began to smile more by the time they watched his animated film, in contrast to his controlled, stoic demeanor in the beginning of the documentary. 

At the end of the film, we realize that European cinema is truly an avenue for a variety of techniques for filmmaking and storytelling. Oftentimes, we believe European films are daring, eccentric, and difficult to understand since we are more familiar with Hollywood films. However, considering the documentary style of The Five Obstructions that is similar to Hollywood conventions, we get to see that it is not just about the aesthetic. For instance, Von Trier shows us the ethics behind filmmaking when he asked Leth to remake the film in the worst place in the world without showing the place. The exercise required empathy, but Leth refused to listen and stuck to his old practice of capturing provoking images. Aside from this, Von Trier also taught his mentor to remake the films without any rules and as a cartoon, as the third and fourth obstructions, respectively — which he hated. Despite his struggles, Leth came up with some of the best films and offers the audience not just one, but a total of six films in The Five Obstructions alone. This film-within-a-film technique satisfies the thirst of many creative professionals, allowing us to understand how we can constantly improve ourselves if we escape the comfortable box we built. Although Von Trier felt that he failed with his mission, we clearly see how he paved the way for his mentor, Leth, to nurture his film art once more.

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