Thousands of fists pump the air with choreographed precision, as the crowd marches into Kim Il-Sung Square in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang. Right, left, right, left. Endless columns of Koreans demonstrating against the United States, shouting slogans, arms and legs rigidly swinging. At the head of the procession walks a Danish reporter.
The reporter is Mads Brügger and the scene is from his documentary "The Red Chapel". In 2006, Brügger travelled to North Korea with two comics, Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell, who were both adopted from South Korea as infants – Nossell describes himself as "imported goods" – cracking open the hermetically sealed nation in a combination of playacting and satire. The outcome was a TV series, "The Red Chapel", broadcast on DR2 in Denmark that year and now edited into a 90-minute documentary produced by Zentropa Rambuk. In September, the film won the Best Nordic Documentary Award at the Nordisk Panorama festival in Reykjavik.
Communist troupe on cultural exchange
The goal of Brügger and his crew's trip was to show the scary true face of the North Korean dictatorship. But how do you go about doing that in a closed, tightly controlled country that does everything it can to isolate itself from any Western influence?
The Danes pretended to be a communist theatrical troupe on cultural exchange. To that end, they had rehearsed a variety act of roughly 20 minutes to perform at North Korea's national theatre, a showcase of Danish culture meeting the Koreans' strict demands for no ideological or political undertones. Nonetheless, Mrs. Pak, the National Theatre's director and the Danish delegation's guide, in no time had gutted the script and the act in the end was anything but apolitical or subtle. "One heart, one mind, one Korea!" Simon Jul was ordered to shout in the closing act. The unkindest cut of all affected Nossell, who has cerebral palsy. In North Korea, the physically disabled are kept out of sight. Some even claim they are killed.
When the Danes were finally allowed to perform their act at the National Theatre, the Danish comic, who was 18 at the time, had been reduced to a bit player. The Koreans even made him pretend to be normal and merely faking it.
"They help me, they smile at me and they speak to me, but I can feel the contempt they have for me. It makes me paranoid," Nossell says in the film.
Over their nearly three weeks in Pyongyang, the Danes were increasingly caught up in the North Korean propaganda machine. Meanwhile, they had to be careful to keep a straight face and not slip up about their real reason for being there. The demonstration in Kim Il-Sung Square was the most extreme instance.
"Mads, don't lie," Nossell panicked from his wheelchair, as the marching crowd approached and the Koreans indicated that the Danes should walk at the head of the procession, perhaps in an attempt to prove to the world that the North Korean dictatorship has foreign supporters.
"Jacob, for your sake and mine, I have to lie," Brügger whispered, before the crowd swept him away.
Back at their hotel that night, Brügger and Nossell watched themselves on national TV leading the parade for the "Dear Leader." "They're coming to get us now," Brügger thought, as the footage rolled across the screen. But no one questioned the three Danes or their motives. After twenty days of playacting they returned to Denmark with rich footage of day-to-day life under a terror regime.
Cult and criticism
The TV version of "Det Røde Kapel" met with both fascination and criticism when it was first shown on Danish television in 2006. The team behind the series even received threatening phone calls from North Korea. Meanwhile, viewers were glued to the tube watching Mads Brügger and his fellow travellers on their unconventional journey to uncover the truth about the North Korean state. The series' blend of black humour and stark gravity quickly made it a cult hit in Denmark.
But Brügger's methods were also criticised in the Danish media. Many expressed their concern that Mrs. Pak and other North Koreans the Danes had mingled with on their trip would be punished now that the troupe had revealed its real mission. Others questioned the ethics of lying to arrive at the truth. For Brügger, whose past work has been labelled "provo-TV," the answer was unequivocally yes. In fact, he told the Berlingske Tidende newspaper, crossing journalistic lines is important, both to attract viewers and to uncover the truth.
"I hope this will open people's eyes to how awful the existence of North Korea is," he said. "Indoctrination starts in the cradle. The whole country is like one big cave metaphor, because they don't know what's behind the bamboo curtain. They live in an open-air museum managed by Dracula. Many will probably lose their minds when they are confronted with the outside world."