December 23, 2010

INTERVIEW: Mads Brugger

by Steve Dollar

THE RED CHAPEL director Mads Brugger

Winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize for documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival, The Red Chapel is yet another one of those documentary whatzits that made moviegoing such a glorious mindfuck in 2010. Only in this case, Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger doesn't trick the audience. He wheels the Trojan Horse of "cultural exchange" into Kim Jong-il's own private Neverland. Posing as the director of a half-Danish, half-Korean comedy duo called The Red Chapel, he somehow convinces the North Korean government to let the comedians perform before an audience in Pyongyang.

The real funny business is that the performers—the burly Simon Jul Jørgensen and the spindly, 18-year-old Jacob Nossell—are amateurs cast to portray the roles, picked because their Korean heritage made a good pitch to Dear Leader's propaganda-minded minions. As a twist, Jacob is a self-described "spastic," whose speech and movement, while impaired, are much more a challenge to the North Koreans, accustomed to "disappearing" the disabled from public view. (Those who meet Jacob prefer to think he is drunk). Also, Simon and Jacob are, by professional standards, largely inept. They're perfect for the Gong Show, or in this case, the Jong-il Show.

"At some point, I think they thought I was doing a very bizarre documentary about how wonderful making theater and comedy is in North Korea," Brügger said by way of Skype, during a conversation earlier this year. "Apparently, they also thought I was this strange mixture of crypto-fascistic theater director and documentary-maker, a constellation that really doesn't make any sense."

Brügger's sense that comedy is the soft spot of every dictatorship rings mostly true, though, even as the charade—both of the Dane's filmmaking endeavor and the surreal totalitarian movie set that is North Korea—begins to freak everybody out.

The Red Chapel

I'm totally amazed that you managed to pull this off. How did you?

The game play that I had envisioned for the film was that me, Simon and Jacob would make commedia dell'arte both on and offstage. At the same time, it was a basic documentary procedure. Let's set up a trap in the forest and see what happens. We were dealing with people who want to be very much, 100 percent, in control all the time. Everything had to be screened with the Koreans. There was very little room left for improvisation. Midway through, in Pyongyang, I said let's lean back and see what the Koreans will throw at us. We were constantly asking them if Jacob and Simon could do a performance at an accordion factory, where they make these enormous North Korean accordions.

We also asked several times if Jacob and Simon could meet with the North Korean clowns who work at the circus in Pyongyang. But things like that were apparently impossible to arrange. It is The Truman Show in Pyongyang. If you say one morning "Today I want to visit the National Library," that will not be possible because they have not had time to fix the settings and to prepare the people you are going to meet. We decided let's see what happens if they will come up with something out of the ordinary. Suddenly, Mrs. Pak [the handler/translator/mother hen assigned to escort the Danes 24/7] suggested we take part in this mass rally, which she called a small peace demonstration.

Were you nervous? Did you feel you would be able to exit when your two week visit was up?

The general atmosphere was paranoid. Being in North Korea is shock treatment for paranoids, because once you realize that if they are going to do anything to you that you are helpless and you can't do anything, once you think that through, then you start to relax in a strange kind of way. But at the same time, there was a constant atmosphere of threats, of "what if?" Some of that has to do with the kind of English they would speak. When we were having breakfast in the mornings, instead of "Please give me the sugar," Mrs. Pak would say "You better give me the sugar." My worst fear was that at one point Mrs. Pak would begin speaking Danish to us, which would totally freak me out.

The Red Chapel

Watching and knowing that your hosts can't understand Danish added a whole other level to the multifaceted deceptions.

We didn't know for sure, 100 percent. Also, before going I had looked into other instances when Western or foreign reporters or documentary makers were detained or punished because they pushed the envelope a bit too much. The only instance I could find was an American journalist named Andrew Morse who was one of the first American journalists to enter North Korea [in 2004]. While he was there, the regime claimed he was doing hidden recordings. They took away his laptop, destroyed it and his footage, and he was placed under house arrest for two weeks and forced to sign a statement that said he was a spy for the CIA. Then he was allowed to leave the country.

We thought if that was the worst-case scenario, it might not be pleasant but that was something you could deal with. But it really freaked me out when the case of the two American female reporters [Laura Ling and Euna Lee] came about. They were given 12 years in the camps: two years for illegal entry and 10 years for the intent to slander the reputation and good name of North Korea. And if that is the yard of how they measure things then we would have been in the camps forever. I'm not sure that we would have gone there having read what happened to Ling and Lee.

Also, you guys aren't attractive young women, so Bill Clinton is not going to come to your rescue.

No, and the former Danish prime minister is very boring and doesn't like to put himself in harm's way. I don't think the North Koreans would have been very impressed with him coming to town.

Other than Myanmar, which is probably a little easier to get into, is North Korea the last of the hermetically sealed totalitarian states?

It is the last bastion of the Cold War. You can't say that globalization has been completed until North Korea has ceased to exist. It is interesting that there is a place in this world where nobody has heard of Harry Potter, Justin Timberlake or the iPod. They have their own cultural aesthetics, their own music, their own way of doing things.

The Red Chapel

It's almost science fiction.

Yes, exactly. What made Ceauşescu mad was going to North Korea on a state visit. He goes there and sees the degree of control the Great Leader Kim Il-sung has over his people. He witnesses the mass rallies. That was the beginning of him driving Romania into total disaster and craziness, and the same with Robert Mugabe from Zimbabwe. In African terms, he was a reasonable guy, but he also goes to North Korea and comes back crazy. He invites North Korean special operations officers to come and train his own brigade, which he uses to kill all opposition. Many people are not aware of the evil North Korea has caused outside of North Korea.

You marshal these facts in the movie to justify your own deceptions, which begin to drive poor Jacob over the brink.

Yes, because at first in Denmark it aired as a television series without narration. In Denmark many people think of North Korea as people do Vietnam, Laos or China. So if you see what we're doing while having that impression, you would find our methods utterly despicable. Because of the way we are behaving, and the deceit used by us. It's necessary to know about what kind of place it is. You are dealing with the most oppressive totalitarian state in the history of mankind.

But not unlike South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, you mock that totalitarian order, like the scene in which you all come out in perfect North Korea military uniforms. There are so many reasons why it's funny, and one of those reasons is that it's not funny at all. Is that the best weapon to criticize a situation so grave?

Yeah, but my ambition was to make it an emotional rollercoaster ride. I don't mind if you're laughing at Simon wearing a strange, flamboyant lady's sunglasses and his Kim Jong-il outfit. Twenty minutes later, watching the marching scene or how [the North Korean officials] are handling Jacob as a stage performer, it's not funny at all. Then it's justifiable making a film that also makes people laugh. Most North Korean documentaries, you can hear the trumpets of the apocalypse in the background all the time.

The Red Chapel

The first time I saw Jacob and Simon in their Kim Jong-il suits, I thought they will eventually shoot us because they will understand that this is a mockery of them. But Mrs. Pak told Simon, "You display a very powerful emotion." When we went to the DMZ, Simon and Jacob were standing in a position where a bunch of tourists—I think Australians—could see them, standing on the other side. They were laughing at them, because they could easily see what they were doing. Then Simon asked Mrs. Pak, why are they laughing at us. She said, "That is just evil puppet army imperialist propaganda." She couldn't understand that they were laughing at Jacob and Simon because they were mocking the Dear Leader.

I wondered at certain moments if Mrs. Pak wasn't aware of what was going but had this role to play. It's a weird dynamic to figure out.

She is a very complicated character. At one point, we thought maybe she had had a handicapped child herself that had been taken away from her or killed at birth. There's a mystery. At first, I thought of her as a brutal, almost sadistic woman. It had a lot to do with the way she speaks English. She would call me and wake me up every morning at 7 a.m. I would say, "Good morning Mrs. Pak, did you sleep well?" She would say, "Why do you ask?" But there were times when she knew we were watching her—she was smiling and looking cheerful. When she did not know that we were looking at her, her facial structure would fall into place, and she would look like the most traumatized woman in the world, like she had gone through hell. It really freaked me out. She looked 30 years older. But it was only for 10 seconds. The general human condition of living in North Korea became visible for a few seconds.

When the guys meet the schoolgirls, for whom Simon so ardently wants to play and sing "Wonderwall," did you ever feel that genuine, human communication was being made that wasn't controlled?

We were never left alone one-on-one, but Jacob felt they had some genuine human contact with the schoolgirls. In some ways, they befriended each other. At the same time, you have to be aware that these schoolgirls are the cheerleaders of North Korea, especially the twins. They often go abroad with North Korean athletes as a visual marker. They are used as a prop. The regime has a strange fixation on twins and triplets. According to some old folklore, triplets could be a danger to the regime. So if you have triplets in North Korea, they are taken away from you and raised by the regime. I've seen this very, very freaky picture with Kim Il-sung posing with 10 sets of triplet children. It's the freakiest thing I've ever seen.

The Red Chapel

It's clear that Jacob has ethical and emotional issues with your enterprise, but was he ever at any medical risk?

He could handle most things. Sometimes he had to be in his wheelchair because he gets tired. Apart from that, he's functioning 100 percent. He had his breakdown during the first week of our stay there, even though I tried to explain to him what North Korea was like. No matter what you say or do, nothing can prepare people for actually being there. There is this ambiance, this atmosphere of melancholy and sadness which really strikes you. It's a feeling that is indescribable.

What became of Jacob and Simon after the trip?

Jacob came back to Denmark at least two meters taller than he was when we left. In many ways, what he has done was like Frodo going to Mordor and throwing the ring in the volcano. In many ways, it changed his attitude to life. Now he is a student at a university outside of Copenhagen, but he still performs as a standup comedian. Simon is very famous, like the Danish John Belushi. They are like brothers now.

Do they ever perform as The Red Chapel?

No. I thought they were like a 21st-century version of Laurel and Hardy. I thought it would be very obvious to put them onstage in Denmark, but the television series didn't create any opportunities for that.

Finally, did you ever hear from Mrs. Pak again?

I spoke with her on the phone a couple of times after we came back. She called me one Saturday morning when I was getting groceries. One day, when and if the "bamboo curtain" is torn down, I will immediately go to Pyongyang to find Mrs. Pak. It would be so interesting to meet her again, providing she can speak freely, to find out what really happened when we were there.

[The Red Chapel opens Dec. 29 at the IFC Center in New York City.]

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Posted by ahillis at December 23, 2010 11:23 AM