Friday, October 7, 2011

Documentary: The Red Chapel, Far from Afghanistan

A very unique documentary has appeared on Netflix Watch Instantly, and I highly recommend it even though I was somewhat conflicted about it's technique and documentary ethics.  In The Red Chapel, Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger takes two Danish-Korean so-called comedians to North Korea under the pretense of a cultural exchange.  One member of the troupe, Jacob Nossell, has a severe speech impediment and occasionally requires a wheelchair, and in a refreshingly non-politically correct manner he refers to himself as a "spastic."  The film documents how the North Korean "handlers" help guide the troop through various revisions of their routine until it is deemed appropriate for a North Korean school-age audience.  In a nutshell, this means minimizing the role of Nossell in the sketches, which has a profound impact on him as he realizes what is happening.

My main ethical concerns about the documentary have to do with the issue of deception (the false pretense under which the film is made) and the issue of using Nossell and his emotional vulnerability to make a political point.  But that said, Brügger doesn't try to hide behind these issues, and at various points makes it clear that what he's doing is problematic (especially when showing Nossell's response to what is happening).  Far too often Brügger is bombastic and didactic in his rhetoric against North Korea, which seems pretty unnecessary since it is hard not to object to the conditions there, even on the surface level that we are shown.  The film transcends these problems because it gives Nossell a voice to make some of the most pointed observations about the nice way he is being treated on the surface, and the deep hurt being caused by the North Koreans' obvious contempt for and fear of him.

And despite my objections about methodology, the film provides some truly jaw-dropping sequences that could only have been achieved though this method.  It will make you squirm in your seat as you watch moments of surreal audacity.  That is the kind of discomfort that some documentaries are supposed to engender for our own good.

The Red Chapel (Mads Brügger, Denmark, 2009, 87 minutes)
Netflix: While in North Korea under the pretext of a cultural exchange, two Danish-Korean comics and a subversive journalist with a video camera attempt to ridicule their host nation's oppressive regime but encounter moral dilemmas and political manipulation. A bold look at the ethics of deceit, director Mads Brügger's darkly humorous documentary (and an award winner at Sundance) provides a rare glimpse inside one of the world's most secretive societies.  Netflix link.

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Over the next week, Fandor will be hosting several works-in-progress short films that eventually will make up the feature documentary Far from Afghanistan.  In addition to checking out the works-in-progress, you can also contribute to their Kickstarter campaign to help the project come to completion and get wider distribution. 

Far From Afghanistan: October Edition (Streaming October 6-12 on Fandor and at film's website)
Project description: Inspired by the 1967 collaborative undertaking, Far From Vietnam (Loin Du Vietnam), that united a variety of filmmakers, cameramen, editors and technicians “to knit together imagery of the war, interviews, intellectual styles, fictional incursions and documentary footage in a bid to counter and interpret the intensive media coverage and propaganda manipulated by the American government”, Far From Afghanistan strives to contribute to the international effort to redirect US policy away from military and political intervention toward true humanitarian and developmental care-giving (if and when requested). Bringing together some of the boldest and most politically-progressive U.S. filmmakers to speak from within the war machine, alongside contributions from native filmmakers throughout Afghanistan, Far From Afghanistan will examine through a mosaic of approaches – issues of shared responsibility, history and memory – all in a concerted effort to help accelerate political resistance to the war.  Fandor linkOctober Edition link.

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