A Danish media producer, Mads Brügger, draws two fellow Danes, and Korean adoptees, to perform bad, amateur comedy as an effort at cultural exchange with North Korea. His Korean-born comrades are Jacob Nossell, a self-described spastic, and Simon Yul Jørgensen. The “documentary” is called “The Red Chapel” (“Det røde kapel” in Danish). The exchange is merely a ruse for Mr. Brügger: he wants the opportunity to film inside this sealed state, to record and expose the state’s brutal, repressive system.
In the beginning, after having shown just how meager Jason and Simon’s skills are and how amateur their intentions, Mads asks the viewer via voice over: why would North Korea allow a comedy show that’s this bad to go forward unless they intended to exploit it for propaganda? Good question. That’s an interesting premise for a documentary.
How many reality-based, comedic documentaries are out there, or how many political documentaries have been made for laughs? Hmm. This documentary, a guerilla version, is strange. The humor is semi-amusing, more silly than funny. Simon and Jacob are sympathetic and very smart when Mr. Brügger leaves them enough on-screen long enough for this to register.
It’s too bad that Brügger named no non-partisan sources – no sources at all – for his often haunting assertions. His opinions or conclusions are his currency here. He uses no international public documents are cited to corroborate his words. This bodes poorly if this is to be taken as a real documentary, instead of documentary style, or just called verité.
There are documentaries and documentary-style (verité) films. The New York Times’ chief film critic, A.O. Scott, recently wrote about how the description or definition has become murkier and murkier. A “documentary?”: documentaries are essentially long-form journalism. To document. To record and then report.
According to Merriam-Webster:
- “to provide with factual or substantial support for statements made or a hypothesis proposed;
- especially : to equip with exact references to authoritative supporting information.”
Among Scott’s observations, he recommends that people who watch docs ask themselves what agenda the film or its maker has. In a perfect world, journalism‘s lone agenda is to build a story on a foundation of accurate, reliable and corroborated facts. People can insist that reality TV is documentary, but that hot air coughs up into frost when you consider that those scenarios are contrived and conjured.
The verdict: if you accidentally bump into the DVD, why not take a gander? Otherwise…