The Five Obstructions

What happens when a young, controversial filmmaker asks his mentor to remake a classic short film with radical limitations?

Tell me more: This is a film about creative process. The Five Obstructions (2003) documents the relationship between the Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier and his mentor, Jorgen Leth. Leth remakes his own 1967 short film “The Perfect Human” five times, given a series of obstructions that von Trier invents. These include the requirements that one remake be a cartoon, and another must be “shot in the worst place on earth.”

Classroom applications: We have used this film in design classes to illustrate the power of limitations in driving creative work. The first five minutes of the film document the process of inventing the first set of obstructions, and we use that clip in workshops to preface a design activity that mimics this challenge. With older students, watching and analyzing Leth’s process in each of the five films is a useful starting point for a discussion about creativity and freedom. It may be difficult to watch The Five Obstructions with young students; it is in Danish with English subtitles, and is so experimental that even middle school students may struggle to stay engaged.

But the ideas that Leth and von Trier experiment with can be applied in many contexts: In fact, we think reality television shows like Top Chef and Project Runway are based on the same premise that limitations (of time, materials, location, scale, program and more) are essential to driving innovative thinking. And, people of all ages can relate to the competitive relationship that develops as von Trier tries harder and harder to identify an obstruction that Leth cannot reinterpret as “a gift.”

Go further:

  • Purchase The Five Obstructions on Amazon
  • The full version of the film may be available on YouTube
  • We often watch a clip of The Five Obstructions (the first 5 minutes) before leading our IKEA Challenge
The Five Obstructions