Drawing the line between information and propaganda can be difficult. In the case of Mads Brügger’s documentary The Red Chapel, it’s nearly impossible. The Danish filmmaker and two friends posed as a pro-socialist comedy troupe called The Red Chapel to gain entrance into North Korea. Under the guise of cultural exchange, Brügger filmed his two-week stay in the country, and the result is a rare glimpse into a closed society that is part satire and part political screed. The film is thoroughly fascinating, and just won the World Cinema grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend.
Because his footage was sent to censors every night, Brügger reserved his commentary for subtitles and voiceover in the film, which gives the humor of “Red Chapel” a level of Sacha Baron Cohen’s style satire. But unlike a project like “Borat,” Brügger’s film has an overt political message. He explained in an interview:
“People don’t know that [North Korea] is Nazi Germany times ten. It’s pure evil.”
The journalist turned filmmaker does not consider himself a conservative, but when it comes to North Korea, his opinions are plain:
“Regarding North Korea, I’m a diehard neoconservative. Maybe that’s a bit too much for some people, but that is how I feel about the matter.”
Brügger actually got the idea for this film after working on a similarly themed project called “Danes for Bush” — where he and a colleague travelled the globe posing as adamant George W. Bush supporters. After nearly getting arrested in New York, Brügger realized that he hadn’t chosen the right setting for his work:
“We were criticized for exploiting something very nice about a country like the USA, where you can drive around freely asking people questions. I got to thinking — is there a place where role-play makes sense? And it dawned on me that it had to be a dictatorship. And I became obsessed with Korea. It is such an extreme society.”
Brügger noticed on the North Korean government’s website that the country was accepting applications for cultural exchange. With the help of two Korean born comedian friends — Simon Jul Jørgensen and Jacob Nossell — Brügger professed his love for Kim Jong-Il and fabricated his comedy troupe. Soon the group was travelling around Pyongyang with North Korean escorts and working on its comedy act.
But Brügger wasn’t really interested in putting on a good show. He says in voiceover during the film:
“What kind of country would allow a show as bad and bizarre as ours to be performed in a national theater in the capital city?”
It turns out North Korea is not such a country. As soon as his overseers watch the show, they are tearing it apart — replacing Danish jokes with Korean ones and creating some even worse and more bizarre comedy. They also took the opportunity of the Danes’ trip to put them in the Korean media and walk them through an anti-American rally.
But as much as the North Koreans were using this Danish group for their own propaganda purposes, Brügger was using his friends as well.
Jacob Nossell especially suited Brügger’s purposes. He is a young Danish comedian, but he has developmental problems (he calls himself a “spastic”) and Brügger knew that the juxtaposition of a handicapped person in a country where such people are hidden and often killed would add gravitas to his film.
While the Koreans welcomed Nossell warmly, they did not accept him as a performer (at one point he is instructed to act like he is “not handicapped but playing handicapped”). In America the reaction has been much different. In addition to the award the film won this weekend, Jacob was greeted in Sundance by a standing ovation.
“In some ways it’s a very American film,” says Brügger. “It’s amazing how strongly the audience reacts to seeing someone like Jacob in real life.”
The film has gotten some criticism for its failure to find cinematic evidence of human atrocities. But Brügger found the evasiveness and underhandedness of his Korean caretakers to be evidence enough of how dictatorship destroys the human spirit. In Pyongyang where most of the film takes place, only the most fervent of Kim Jong Il supporters exist. And while the troupe’s Korean caretakers greet them warmly, they strip the Red Chapel performance of every non-Korean element. It is that subterfuge that upsets Brügger.
“That is basically what a totalitarian slave state does to people,” says Brügger. “It warps and perverts human emotions between human beings. No one can risk the privilege of being truthful.”
As the film goes on, the constant duplicity begins to wear on all members of Red Chapel. Both comedians grate against the ideological forces of socialism and Brügger’s deception throughout the film. The difference between Brügger’s actions and the Koreans, however, is that he lays bare his plans from the beginning. It’s harder to extrapolate what the Koreans have in mind when they invite these three men into their country for cultural exchange only to strip every Non-Korean element out of their performances.
In the film, Brügger lets himself be completely manipulated by his Korean escorts, laying bare the strange decisions that people make when their fate is in the hands of an unfeeling dictator. As for the criticism that what Brügger has made is actually propaganda itself, Brügger has a quick response:
“In some ways the best way to fight propaganda is with propaganda.”