Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi—life outta whack

I hope you all like wordless non-narratives.

Sometimes you just have to take a few great, big steps back and look at things from a different angle. Film can show us new angles we might have otherwise missed. Good cinema conveys compelling emotions. It expounds on provocative ideas about the world we live in or what the world used to be like or what it can become. It may be persuasive. It may be informative. It may have stunning visuals. It may be beautiful and captivating. It may be arresting and ugly. Good cinema may have some of these things mixed together unevenly, but great cinema does it all. Great cinema is exploratory and revelatory and revolutionary. It has all these things, but it does not require the cumbersomeness of words. Director Godfrey Reggio proves this point with his amazing trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi (2002). Through this series Reggio explores and explains our world as a glorious and terrifying ballet of images and motion set to a powerful Philip Glass score.

I know what you’re thinking: “those are the most alienating titles I have ever seen.” Well, they each come from the Hopi Indian language and each film deals with a different direction society has taken. Let us proceed in order, shall we?

The first film is entitled Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and translated it means “life out of balance.” It opens with cave paintings and rocket exhaust and then beautiful and powerfully awesome pictures of nature. Dazzling rock formations jut out of the earth and mountains and canyons sculpted by the forces of nature whiz by like an incredible, living mosaic. The music pumps wonder and energy into every frame. Even when the camera lingers on subjects and is still it is nothing short of jaw dropping. Gradually the lush terrain becomes entangled in modern man-made constructs. Billowing smoke stacks protrude out from labyrinthine nightmares of wires and pipes. Towering buildings blot out the sun and mimic the sky as they reflect the shifting clouds. People bustle through streets and subways and supermarkets. Assembly line systems from hell (or maybe Detroit) rage on interminably. Urban renewal wipes out slums and old buildings with merciless precision. Machines whir and hammer away incessantly. Metal sparks blaze forth from the pulsating industry. Modernization spins its web ever faster until moving at an exponential rate. As the music becomes more intense and the editing becomes deliriously fast, the images begin to blur together and transform from a wondrous ballet to an unbearable barrage of nightmarish images reflecting all that is wrong with mechanization. Just when the chaos reaches its zenith, Reggio backs off and gives us more peaceful images (peaceful in the sense that they are slower and the music is quieter). The images themselves are still quite compelling. The last thing we see before the curtain is drawn is a spaceship, the Challenger, launching and exploding in the atmosphere in slow motion. The rocket’s engine tumbles down from the sky as Glass’s score resounds like an ominous funeral dirge. Has mankind flown too close to the sun on wings of wax? Have we spoiled the earth so much and reached too high and too selfishly to the heavens that God has stifled our Tower of Babel a second time? Before the credits roll Reggio closes his film with a parting shot of more prehistoric cave paintings.

If a picture is worth a thousand words then this movie is worth millions. It says so much without vocalizing anything. It is elusive yet definite. It is tranquil yet violent. It is the visual representation of “life out of balance.” It is a history lesson and a science lesson and a warning and a lament all at the same time. And it is beautiful and stirring. Koyaanisqatsi will leave the viewer with much to ponder and all without plot or characters.

The second film always gets flack for “not being the first film” but it is still a great movie. Again Reggio employs both silent images and motion with the music of Philip Glass. Powaqqatsi (1988) comes from the Hopi language again and it means “life in transformation” or “parasitic way of life.” The second installment in the trilogy deals chiefly with the third world of the Southern Hemisphere and those first sooty steps toward the door of industrialization. The images are more about the struggle for life and survival as a forlorn parade of wide-eyed, sallow-faced visages pass from the screen to our eyes. Gaunt bodies and bent backs do work most Americans would never dream of doing. People struggle to work and prepare meals and to entertain themselves. This is the feather-filled pageantry of the tribal world clashing and struggling to become the industrialized doomed nations Koyaanisqatsi depicted. The results are more toxic smoke and fumes. The transition from third world country to mechanized city can be uneven and difficult and the film is no less compelling. Powaqqatsi is the cinematic equivalent of a coke-frenzied flip through several “National Geographic” magazines. If you are going to watch this movie, be prepared to be moved and compelled by the human face. The film is another staggering achievement.

Godfrey Reggio conveys so much without any words. What the filmmakers have done with these two movies is attempt present the world we live in. The meaning and message behind Powaqqatsi may be more elusive than its predecessor, Koyaanisqatsi, but it is no less captivating.

The final installment in the Qatsi Trilogy is Naqoyqatsi (2002) which means “life as war” in the Hopi language. Its message is not so subtle. It leaves subtlety at the doorstep as it opens on the very Tower of Babel and gradually zooms in. It is no longer a process; man has gone too far in Naqoyqatsi. Reggio once again teams up with Philip Glass to bring entrancing symphony to startling imagery. Naqoyqatsi features digitally enhanced footage and inverted colors to create a surreal fascistic nightmare about life as being completely mechanized and totally artificial. Nothing is natural or organic. The world has become an all out war on nature and nature is nowhere to be found. It has been eclipsed by the cold, artificiality of mechanization. The sky is gone. Trees and shrubberies have retreated back into the earth. Technology has dominated society and the planet, leaving only ghostlike figures pointlessly wandering the crowded streets. Soldiers march, satellites rotate, and numbers dance through a void. The whole ordeal is a chaotic orgy of logos, binary, and blurred lights. Hollow technology reigns supreme and humanity has been reduced to spectral cogs in a violently impersonal machine. The tampered with footage and digital imagery is not quite as compelling as the first two films, and the message more closely resembles a sledgehammer than the spellbinding display that provoked so much thought with the first two movies, but it is still well worth the time to watch it. It’s more impersonal, but maybe that’s part of the point Reggio is trying to make…no wait, of course it is.

Like Ron Fricke’s (Reggio cohort and cinematographer on the Qatsi series) Baraka (1992) and Dziga Vertov’s amazing The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), Godfrey Reggio manages to interpret the world in a direct and transcendental way. They move beyond conventional storytelling and conventional documentary making to become something truly unique and mystical. Life is a vigorous battle of both immense beauty and horror. The scope and wonder captured in the Qatsi Trilogy is nothing short of staggering and the delirium with which it is all captured will leave you breathless. I cannot recommend enough that you treat yourself to Reggio’s film work, the Qatsi Trilogy.

picture references:

moviemail-online.co.uk

screentrek.com

smh.com.au

thecia.com.au

narod.ru

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 20, 1010

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Syndrome Be Damned

Director Duane Graves put together a pleasant little film portrait of his close friend in 1999. This documentary does not boast a large budget, sleek editing, beautiful high definition photography, or even a hard-hitting political message. It merely presents his friend, Rene Moreno, as a focal point for our attention. Duane Graves is simply an amateur filmmaker who recognized an interesting subject when he saw it, and Rene Moreno, in addition to being a fascinating microcosm for the Down Syndrome community, is just a natural-born entertainer. This is Up Syndrome (2000).

There exists a mythical bond between Duane and Rene. They met when they were both younger. Duane’s mother told him that Rene had Down Syndrome, which baffled the young Duane because Rene didn’t seem down at all, he seemed happy. This is a fine beginning as it reveals the innocence that can destroy preconceptions about Down Syndrome. Duane got a camera as a present and together with Rene, made several horror home movies and their friendship grew. The documentary picks up again with Rene at age 23 in the summer following his graduation. Rene Moreno is a resident of San Antonio, Texas, a die-hard Spurs fan, and employee of the local grocery store. And Rene can really tell a story.

The film does not have a plot, but rather it presents a collection of mini-scenes and moments. Rene tells the camera important things about himself and shows us the things that matter to him. We become attached to this unpretentious, charismatic individual and we come to realize that we enjoy listening to him and spending time with him. He eagerly awaits the arrival of his sister’s baby so he can be an uncle. He humorously impersonates the kids from his class at school. He shoots off fireworks on the Fourth of July. He demonstrates some pretty slick bowling moves as well as karate punches on an unassuming reclining chair. He strums guitar and sings. He recounts the funeral after his grandfather died. He informs us that his girlfriend has broken up with him. He is saddened when he loses his job and cannot find another one. He prays over lottery tickets and asks God for a job. And he longingly stares into the darkened windows of his old school building and reflects on all the teachers in his yearbook he misses.

Rene Moreno’s desire for independence and to help and have belonging is an important one. He does not want his mother to think of him as a baby forever. Rene wants to grow up. This dilemma is a significant issue because sometimes society appears unwilling or unsure of how to help integrate people with learning disabilities into the working world. Are Rene’s ambitions too big? What are people like Rene supposed to do after their school career comes to a close? Sadly, many people with Down Syndrome and other problems are left in limbo and this is something that is given a very personal, human face in Up Syndrome. Rene Moreno demonstrates humor, imagination, affection, innocence, pride, and joyfulness, but there is an important social issue beneath the surface.

When I worked with children with special needs I recognized the problem that Up Syndrome pointed out. In a school environment everyone is encouraged to learn and interact and play and develop, with some kids’ curriculums even tailor made just for them based on their abilities. The school is safe and full of growing, but what happens next? Duane’s documentary is a fascinatingly intimate one-on-one with Rene Moreno, but he is mostly left to his own devices as his schooling is done and he attempts to acclimate to life outside. After a much enjoyed class reunion where Rene gets to see many of his old friends back in school and dance with everybody, we wonder what adjustments all of these other young people are having to make too. There is not enough support and encouragement beyond the school system to help people like Rene become happy contributors to society and culture. Don’t think they can contribute to society or culture? Then consider celebrated artist Judith Scott, she was deaf and had Down Syndrome and her story can be seen in the 2006 documentary, Outsider: The Life and Art of Judith Scott. Scott’s incredible sculptures are compelling and very evocative and representative of the separation and longing she felt for her fraternal twin sister. Scott’s work provides a unique insight as to what the world looks like from a completely foreign perspective. People with Down Syndrome are valuable and important too. Duane Graves certainly believes that, and Rene certainly is a ball of life to contend with. Sadly, according a 2008 UK News article, research states that “92 percent of women who receive an antenatal diagnosis of Down’s syndrome decide to terminate the pregnancy. This proportion has not changed since 1989.”

Perhaps there is a fear. Perhaps we do not know what to do with these people. Rene Moreno might be limited in some ways, but aren’t we all? Tough issues, but the film remains as optimistic as its subject. When the film takes the time to show Rene discussing his understanding of death and considers his own death in the future, and then goes on to show him reveling in playing cop in a parked car in the garage and using his hand as a gun (complete with exciting sound effect track!), we, the viewer, get the full spectrum of human emotion. Rene Moreno is a dynamic ball of entertainment and his comfortableness with his friend Duane Graves as director allows us to get closer to his soul than we might have been able to with someone else at the helm.

Towards the end of the film Rene becomes an uncle and shares a precious moment holding the new baby. The tenderness is magical. After all the small moments and big moments that we have shared with Rene Moreno it is time to say goodbye. We have gotten a glimpse into Rene’s world. What defines a human being’s worth? Just the limits of his intellect? Certainly not. I smiled and laughed along with Rene and Duane as they joked around with each other and I thought about some of Rene’s faith and philosophical advice. As the curtain closes on this charming little movie, Rene takes a moment to tell us, “No drinking and no smoking.” So what is there to be down about? I’d say Duane Graves’ life has been brought up from his friendship with Rene.

http://www.trisomyfilms.com/links.html

http://www.screenjunkies.com/

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 13, 2011

“A woman is not a seal…not even a walrus.”

I would start  by saying that this is a weird movie for 1960, but that’d be a little disingenuous. This would be a weird movie for any year. Nicholas Ray, director of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), brings this strange arctic tale to the screen. You can chalk up Eskimo on Anthony Quinn‘s long list of nationalities he has portrayed. Where to begin?

First off: I do not know how accurate this movie is in portraying Inuit peoples, so I’m not sure if the movie is sexist or racist or sexist and racist or nothing. Not that a little culturally ill-informed bad taste has ever stopped me from enjoying a movie before (I refer you to my article on Song of the South). Whatever the case and however bizarre a product The Savage Innocents (1960) may be, I still liked it.

The story concerns Inuk (Quinn) and his search for a woman “to laugh with” (a.k.a. bang). Once he finds his woman, Asiak (played with sweetness by Yoko Tani), he seeks to become a great hunter. To become a great hunter he will trade fox pelts for a gun with the foolish white men. He accidentally murders a missionary (Marco Guglielmi) who insults his home by not eating his maggot-filled meat and refusing “to laugh with” his wife when he offers her. When his wife is ready to give birth he must leave his old mother-in-law (Marie Yang) to be eaten by polar bears. He must raise a son and hunt many wild animals. When the white authorities catch up with him he must remember his crime and try to explain before they can arrest him and then he must help his captors when they get lost on the ice.

Dogsleds, the derision of women, and the clashing of cultures is what this movie is all about. If their lives seem hard to understand and barbaric at times we must remember that theirs is a savage innocents. It may not be what the rest of the world is used to, but it is its own culture that was adapted to be as harsh as the arctic environment they reside in. It is no better or worse than the “civilized” world. It’s all about simplicity and survival.

Sometimes I’m actually uncertain if the filmmakers want to present these people as more than primitive blubber-munchers or if they want to say that they are but that’s okay because that’s just who they are. It is a puzzlement. In any event they do also condemn “civilized” man as well.

It is also just kind of neat that the movie is set in a contemporary setting. By telling the story of indigenous peoples unconcerned with the Atomic Age it bottles some genuine insulation and innocence from international troubles.

Inuits might be one of the most underrepresented groups in the media. Apart from Robert J. Flaherty’s vintage documentary Nanook of the North (1922) and Frank Zappa’s song Yellow Snow and a Bugs Bunny cartoon or two there really have not been many Northern folk in the movies. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I can respect this strange amalgam of drama and documentary (the drama is frequently punctuated by a narrator describing life in the Arctic). I confess I probably would not have even sought out this movie had it not been for the promise of seeing two of my favorite people to watch onscreen—Anthony Quinn (Viva Zapata!, Zorba the Greek, The Guns of Navarone) and Anna May Wong (Piccadilly, Shanghai Express, Bombs Over Burma)—together in the same movie. Alas, I looked through this movie so hard and could not find her. Apparently someone else has the name “Anna May Wong” but it was not THE Anna May Wong. I was a little mad about that. Oh well.

Does it seem odd to cast a Chinese actress as an Inuit? Odder than casting a Mexican? Well, Quinn had played Apache, Greek, Persian, French, and the Prophet himself to name a few. Why not Inuit? And when much of the cast is apparently Japanese maybe you won’t mind. Just remember that this was a different time and this is how movies were made and we have come so far since then and pay no attention to Johnny Depp playing Tonto in the new Lone Ranger (2013) movie.

It’s a strange movie to be sure. It’s rather episodic and uneven. Some of the scenery is impressive but sometimes it’s too apparent when they’re on a stage. There are a sloppy few animal sequences that mostly end in death of some kind (the walrus hunt is pretty good though). The trouble with an environment that is day half the year and night the other half is that it becomes impossible to distinguish the passage of time (Pacino! Insomnia!). Some of the dialogue feels stilted and possibly caricature. Peter O’Toole (pre-nose job!) is in it but his voice is dubbed by some American guy so it’s weird (Harvey Keitel in Saturn 3, anyone?). The narration feels out of place most of the time, like an old Disney nature documentary or Mondo Cane. Much of the film feels quite uncinematic actually. Some sequences make me feel uncomfortable because I’m not sure how uninformed and insulting the movie really is in regards to actual Inuit culture. Nanook of the North was definitely the better Inuit movie. Ultimately most the themes in The Savage Innocents were handled far better in Akira Kurosawa‘s grand Russian epic Dersu Uzala (1975).

There are also a lot of shirts off for such a cold climate.

All these grievances add up to a truly weird movie experience. I did like it, however. It does have some pretty good sequences: the kayak and dogsled footage; the walruses tumbling off their rock island; Asiak winning over Inuk; the missionary murder; Asiak’s attitude towards the whites and “civilized” Inuits at the trading post; the chilling advice regarding childbirth from a dying old woman; the mission to arrest Inuk in the storm. It doesn’t all add up to a great movie, but it is pretty unforgettable. The main theme isn’t bad either (a sort of mix between Giacomo Puccini’s Humming Chorus from the opera Madame Butterfly and the theme from Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust). Anthony Quinn is not doing his best work, but he’s still good and Yoko Tani does a fine job as his submissive but willful wife (her character is far more interesting). The Savage Innocents also create an atmosphere unlike any other. You feel secluded and desperate but cozy while watching it. Watching this movie you will feel like you have lived in this bleak, frozen world your whole life. You really do end up relating to these characters. You hate the traders and the missionary and the troopers despite their best intentions. They are the aliens in this world. Inuk and his family are the only guides you’d follow through this impossible tundra.

It’s a fairly immersive experience, which is sort of what a good movie is supposed to be. I had dreams all night about living on the ice after watching The Savage Innocents. Whether it be hackneyed pseudo-documentary or insensitive cultural sleight, I may not know, but I definitely enjoyed it for whatever it was. It’s weird, possibly racist, and terrifically uneven but I kind of like it’s kooky imperfection.

What are you waiting for? Go give it a whirl.

A Questionable Faith You Cannot Question

Many people have attempted to interview the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. Attempted is the key word here. It is comprised almost entirely of the family of an old patriarch named Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas. Today much of their infamy has died down largely because people have stopped caring and stopped giving them attention. Several years ago this controversial church was in the news quite a bit. They got famous for staging angry protests at funerals (among other things) all across America. Muslim funerals, Jewish funerals, gay funerals, soldier funerals, everything. They got a deal to do an interview just so they wouldn’t protest and torment the family of those poor murdered Amish girls awhile back. They are famous for the catchy slogans such as “God hates fags,” “God hates America,” and many other inflammatory sayings they post on signs, banners, etc. They even have a countdown on their website that states how many days Matthew Shepard (a homosexual victim of a deadly hate crime) has been in hell. Why do they do all this? Simply put, they want everyone to know that they are all going straight to hell and that God hates them.

[The Westboro Baptist Church is not an accurate representation of Baptists, churches, or Kansas].

One reason why public interest has died down is because people might be finally connecting the dots. The Westboro congregation is few in number, narrow in thought, angry in spirit, and purposely instigating the public. Despite several prominent members of the “church” being lawyers they have proven time and again in every interview I have seen (from Fox News to Tyra Banks) that they are beyond consistent logical responses. Many interviewers have just become angry and resorted to attempts of out-shouting them. It’s like arguing with a three year old. You can’t win the argument because a three year old is too simple and stubborn to engage in the debate at your level. Perhaps people have finally learned that these folks are more of a mindless nuisance than an actual threat. They do cause emotional pain and try to incite angry responses (to prove that they are the only ones who are truly saved), but giving them attention is giving them power. Anytime you acknowledge a bully (or a bullying pseudo-religious fringe movement) you are appeasing them. When you give a microphone to a crazy person you can’t think that you will trip them up and reveal them for the whack-jobs they really are. The Westboro Baptist folks have no shame and love the attention and love the opportunity to spread their particular brand of crazy.

“I’m not with her.”

So why bring up this backwards cult now? Two things: The Most Hated Family in America (2007) and its more recent followup America’s Most Hated  Family in Crisis (2011). Both are BBC documentaries featuring British journalist Louis Theroux and both are quite fascinating. Mr. Theroux is by far the finest journalist to ever interact with this nutty family. His demeanor is cool and collected, yet he’s up front and forward about his contrary positions. As he interviews screwball after screwball and gets wildly offensive (yet casual) response after wildly offensive response he maintains a gentleman’s decorum. This is the only approach to have. Fox News butchered almost every interview they had with them (not a huge surprise). Another thing that makes the Theroux interviews so much better are his goals. Rather than try to prove them wrong or out-logic them he simply means to figure out who they are and to humanize these people. Theroux uses his time with the Phelps family to find the humanity within them that they are trying so hard to remove. It seems they do not wish to be human because to be human is to be of the world and to be of the world is to be the servant of Satan. During each interview I was actually moved and saddened by the walls they had put up around themselves. They only hear what they want to hear. It appears they are afraid to show any emotions outside of anger or an unnervingly disingenuous happy facade loaded with smarminess.

They treated Theroux very well, I thought. The Phelpses were cordial and open with him while maintaining all the while he was only a stone’s throw away from being the left hand of the antichrist (who is Barak Obama, by the way).

For the first documentary Louis Theroux is simply trying to get to know them and understand why they feel so set apart and how they can be so sure that they are the only people who are right. He even gets a fleeting interview with Fred Phelps himself and sits in on a few sermons with them. The sermons are bizarre harangues of hate, fury, and insanity. I suppose it’s fitting because according to Westboro’s interpretation of scripture, God is a hating and hateful person who only wants to bring about destruction on his creation…which begs the question of why anyone would choose to worship such an intolerably odious and scornful deity. The answer seems to be fear for most of the members of the church. They are scared to death that God will kill them and send them straight to hell. They have to spread their message of hate to avoid being punished just like he’s punishing American troops for defending a country that gay people live in.

I do wonder why they don’t home-school their kids or why they would buy clothing and food from mainstream American retailers. If you only ever saw evil and damnation everywhere you looked (but yourself), would you send your children out into the world and would you support it by purchasing its goods?

“Is it possible you’ve gotten more weird?”

The followup 2011 interview finds the Westboro Baptist Church dwindling in numbers and becoming even more bonkers, deluded, and cold. Several people have left the church and their families have disowned them. The Phelps family is coming apart and the remaining members have become increasingly strange and mean. When Theroux presses them about their fallen members the Westboro folk tighten up and avoid responding in a way that would betray emotion or feelings. They are all living in fear of their god and in fear of their own emotions. They fear the weakness of their own humanity and they fear a malevolent supernatural force that they cannot see but is always surrounding them and is always poised to strike and punish. You begin to see that everything they do is a deeply psychological defense mechanism. They are not well. They have been brainwashed and cannot deviate from what they have been told lest they be killed by god or they come to terms with their own evils. It is a terrifying corner to be in for anyone. They lash out in anger and hate and rejoice in the misfortunes and deaths of others but deep down within themselves they are walking tragedies…and some of them finally realized it and left.

Louis Theroux was the perfect man for the job of interviewing the Westboro Baptist Church. I have enjoyed many of his specials with many weird, wild folks. His calm and droll manner was the perfect counterpoint to their circular belligerence. I found both documentaries to be fascinating, entertaining, and informative and I would say he succeeded in getting closer to their humanity than any other reporter has dared dream.

The common impulse to the Westboro Baptist Church is to reciprocate in hate, but an eye for an eye still makes the whole world blind. I look at them and I can only pity them. They are so lost and so confused and with each turn their world becomes darker and harder to escape. I can never condone their actions, but I can advocate that we have compassion for even the most vile of people. “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). We know hate cannot destroy hate, but maybe love and understanding can. Stand together and protect and love the victims of their hate, but wonder about and pray for the monsters who are blindly throwing the stones.

One more thing I must say regards to faith in general. To tie everything in with my title, if you do not feel welcome to question your faith then it is a weak faith. Westboro Baptist Church folk dare not question their faith. Fear of finding a truth that is at odds with your beliefs is a poor moral excuse and dangerous road indeed. If what you are believing is true then that faith can only be bolstered by the answers you find. Question everything, but don’t stop there. Actively search for the answers. It can only lead to the revelation of the truth.

http://step2inspire.tv/newspost/louis-theroux-americas-most-hated-family-in-crisis/

http://www.ovguide.com/tv_episode/louis-theroux-special-episodes-season-2-episode-2-louis-and-the-most-hated-family-in-america-1404331

A Spastic in North Korea

North of the 38th Parallel. It is one of the most peculiar, enigmatic, and isolated corners of the world. Nobody knows what really goes on in there. What is their culture and society really like? What is their population? How does their economy function? Nobody ever goes in and nobody ever comes out. It must be run by Oompa-Loompas.

That's our kingdom, son. As far as the eye can see. Except for the parts that the sun touches.

That’s our kingdom, son. As far as the eye can see. Except for the parts that the sun touches.

Seriously though, North Korea is one of the strangest places on earth. It’s another planet! It is a fascinatingly hidden, cult-ish culture shrouded beneath an overcast sky and the beaming benevolent portraitures of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il [and now Kim Jong-un]. All media is government controlled and they are suspected of countless Human Rights violations. Even if you get in, you better watch your step and still you’ll only ever see and hear what North Korea wants you to see and hear. Great difficulties arise in any attempts to document and fairly assess this 46,528 square mile mystery. Difficulties, yes, but some have attempted nevertheless. The Vice Guide to Travel did an excellent piece on North Korea (watch it here), and there have been many more incredible amateur docs, but Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger took a slightly different approach with his Borat-esque documentary The Red Chapel (2009).

The hop-marching is kind of weird. I wonder how menacing ten thousand soldiers walking like Groucho Marx would be.

The hop-marching is kind of weird. I wonder how menacing ten thousand soldiers walking like Groucho Marx would be.

Brügger’s film would take both himself and two Danish-Korean comedians, Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell, deep into Pyongyang under the guise of a theater troupe that would be performing a traditional Danish comedy play as part of a cultural exchange for the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In actuality, Mads really only seeks to expose North Korea as the soulless dictatorship he believes it is.

Simon and Jacob showcase their knack for ridiculous performance.

Simon and Jacob showcase their knack for ridiculous performance.

 

Another twist is that Jacob Nossell is a self-proclaimed “spastic” (he has a severe speech impediment and occasionally requires a wheelchair). This twist serves several purposes. Firstly Jacob can say almost anything in Danish because between the language and his vocal distortions he will be unintelligible to the North Koreans who will be examining all of the footage they take. The second purpose is to test the North Korean rumor that infants born with genetic maladies are euthanized (as reported by several physicians who have defected). Mads suspects the Red Chapel’s embarrassingly bad show is allowed to continue because the North Koreans seek to dispel this grim rumor and so Jacob and the Red Chapel’s show is to be used as propaganda. Brügger does admit that he is probably guilty of using Jacob for his own manipulative means as well.

Like a spastic in North Korea we're wheelchair bound.

Like a spastic in North Korea we’re wheelchair bound.

The Red Chapel alternates between informative tourism and comical rehearsals where the North Koreans gradually deflate Denmark’s play and replace the entire story with even more convolutions, bizarrities, and pro-North Korean ideological propaganda. The irony is that the Red Chapel was compelled to agree not to incorporate any ideological or political themes in their performance and yet by the end of the movie the Red Chapel performers must conclude their show declaring, “One heart. One mind. One Korea. Together we fight. Together we die.” Another big alteration made to their show is the diminished role of Jacob. He must be in a wheelchair the whole show and only communicate via whistle squeaks while Simon does most of the act himself, and at the end of the show he must stand up (but not speak) so the audience will think he was only pretending to be handicapped. In this topsy-turvy world where Simon and Jacob must don Korean uniforms and regurgitate propaganda for a “cultural exchange,” they are constantly micro-managed by their DPRK tour guides who must evaluate, deliberate, and confer amongst each to other to ascertain the possible political themes of every move they make. For instance, what does the “pussy” in “pussy-cat” truly denote? Might it be dangerous to the North Korean government?

Mrs. Pak.

Mrs. Pak.

Several humorous, subversively subtle and ballsy events pepper the movie just to keep the comedy going. At the revered statue of deceased but eternal president, Kim Il-Sung, Mads Brügger requests to read a silly poem as a (rather absurd) sign of respect and as an offering to the great leader in the spirit of cultural exchange. They also present a pizza paddle to be given to Kim Jong-Il. For all the humor and fun being had, whether Simon is leading an impromptu rendition of “Hey, Jude” on guitar, or Jacob is making insightful quips regarding the vacuous horrors of all the emotionless enthusiasm, what really got me about The Red Chapel were the moments of naked humanity. Most of the evil rumors are never put to rest one way or another, but we do see real people. Mrs. Pak, their tour guide, is one of the most fascinating and compelling people on the screen. She is only allowed to smile and be happy (and keep the boys out of trouble). She cries at the statue of Kim Il-Sung, but Brügger tacitly wonders if she is crying out of love, out of fear, or for memories of pains past. After only a few hours of knowing Jacob, Mrs. Pak is embracing him and calling him “like my son…more than my son.” Tearfully she says ‘it is not mother’s work to send a boy like him away’. There appears to be much conflict within this woman at times. I found Mrs. Pak to be more fascinating an example than all the ghostly vacant streets and empty shops of Pyongyang. Does she know she lives under an oppressive government? Would she call it that? Does she truly know what the rest of the world is like? Is she brainwashed or is she really just that gung-ho? In a land where the only images you are allowed to see are propagandistic, can you not still choose to love it of your own volition? I found her presence and unwitting contribution to the film to be incredible. She genuinely wants to show the Red Chapel all that North Korea has to offer, but is her devotion derived out of cultural pride or fear? We may never know.

Cheery.

Cheery.

The constant lying and games of deception—on both the part of the filmmaker and of North Korea—takes its toll. Jacob has a nervous breakdown early on. During a gigantic celebration (that condemns the United States for attacking them in 1950 unprovoked, of course) Mads and Jacob—pushed in his wheelchair by the motherly Mrs. Pak—wind up marching down the square and having to cheer. Jacob alone defies this command and moans complaints unintelligibly. It is an extremely surreal and tense moment that puts the beads of sweat on Mads’ forehead. Beyond Borat, there is far more danger if their agenda is discovered and their charade is uncovered. They are mocking possibly one of the most dangerous, dehumanizing, and restrictive governments in the world. We never see the death camps or horrific prisons for political threats, but the possibility remains and the danger is always there.

Today we will march up and down the square!

Today we will march up and down the square!

On a tour of a school, the boys see doll-like children performing robotic paroxysms all to the glory of their leader. Il-Sung’s and Jong-Il’s portraits eerily hang in every room just to remind everyone that everything is all doubleplusgood in DPRK. Big Brother is watching. They smile and clap as long as the foreigner’s camera is pointed at them. The children practice and perform acts of programmed artistic perfection reminiscent of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride. When anyone is asked how they are or how anything is, the response is always one of hyperbolic ecstasy and joyous exaltation. In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea no one is unhappy. North Korea is always portrayed as the most prosperous nation in the world. Everyone is in unison and the parades of thousands are never out of step. If Kim Jong-Il is as big a film-lover as is understood (so much so that he kidnapped director Sang-ok Shin and his wife and held him hostage to make movies for North Korea) then I just bet he’s a fan of The Stepford Wives. Watch excerpts from their famed Mass Games and you get a glimpse of their frighteningly awesome precision. People are pixels here.

Grand Mass Arirang Games of North Korea

Grand Mass Arirang Games of North Korea

As with The Vice Guide to Travel: North Korea [and their several followups with Dennis Rodman under Jong-un’s rule now], one never gets to see what lies behind certain doors. Movements are carefully planned out and must never deviate from the government controlled itinerary. One only gets to see what North Korea wishes to be seen and that is always maintained to be the very best. The sad, twisted irony of it all is that if what they show is North Korea’s best it still leaves much to be desired. There is a hollowness and a stifled melancholy about this country in its all-too flattering representation of itself. Perhaps I am revealing too much personal bias as an American [and one who lives in South Korea]. Coming from a country where differences are relished and celebrated and where many cultures and perspectives are encouraged and appreciated and where it is considered strange if everyone is the same and there is no dissenting voice, it is quite a culture shock to get a glimpse into North Korean society. Maybe we’re all just misinformed and it’s not bad or wrong at all, but whatever it is, it is the opposite of the American ideal of individualism.

The boys pose with some locals.

The boys pose with some locals.

I enjoyed The Red Chapel immensely. It may not offer more than a familiar peek into North Korea like some other documentaries, but it has a personality all its own. Following Mads, Simon, Jacob, and Mrs. Pak around in this dystopic world is worth the price of admission. For anyone interested in North Korea this is a must-see comedy documentary.

Creepy.

Come to me, my children.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 16, 2011