Abby Goes to Silverdocs

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June 26, 2010 by abbyo

Davis Guggenheim, director of "Waiting for Superman" at Silverdocs

So, I’ve been interning at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for nearly a month now, and so far DC has been pretty good to me. I’ve seen all kinds of interesting sights, and met a plethora of interesting people. Because CPB is such a fabulous organization (they’re the ones who put up the money for pretty much most of what you hear and see on NPR and PBS) I sometimes get to reap the benefits of working for them. For example, on Wednesday I got to go to Silverdocs, a documentary film festival put on by AFI and the Discovery Channel in Silver Spring, Maryland. Because CPB helped sponsor the event, I got to carry around a sponsor’s pass that allowed me to do pretty much whatever I wanted for the whole day. And what I wanted to do was see movies.

I went to two screenings on Wednesday: “Into Eternity” and “The Red Chapel.” Both were films by Danish filmmakers, Michael Madsen (No, not that Michael Madsen) and Mads Brügger. Both were really interesting films, in distinctly different ways. I’m going to offer reviews of each, starting with “Into Eternity,” below.

Into Eternity

“You are now in a place where we have buried something from you to protect you.” That’s the opening line of “Into Eternity,” which is all about Onkalo, a facility under construction in Finland that will house the world’s nuclear waste. The film, as you might expect, is fairly grim, with lots of footage of desolate, snow-covered barren landscapes suggestive of a nuclear winter. Director Michael Madsen creates a kind of Lynchian atmosphere, switching between shots of talking head scientists and executive officers at Onkalo and shots of the facility itself, deep underground, with crews blasting their way further and further down to create a space for the radioactive waste. The film plays like a subterannean environmental doc-horror movie. It’s dark, frank, creepy and cold. It seems to reflect the director’s own attitude towards his subject: that Onkalo is a bizarre, unbelievable, complex and scary entity.

Madsen’s goal seems to be to make “Into Eternity” a letter to the future. He addresses the camera directly from time to time, out of the dark, lit only by a match. The point here is that the radioactive waste that Onkalo will house will remain dangerous for about 100,000 years, which, generally speaking, is a pretty long time. Madsen asks questions of his “future audience.” What is it like during their time? Have they gone into Onkalo? Why?

Although the presentation and style of the film is fairly potent, the premise wears pretty thin after a while, which is saying something, since the movie only lasts about 87 minutes. After the first couple of instances, Madsen’s matchlit monologues feel a little bit pretentious. And, after the introduction of the idea of a nuclear waste disposal facility as big as Onkalo, the only other theme of the film seems to be how our current civilzation will communicate to future civilizations about what is buried deep beneath the ground in Finland, and why they should never go there. It’s an interesting question, but one that never really goes anywhwere, and feels a bit circular by the end of the film.

On the whole, “Into Eternity” is a pretty interesting piece of work, though, in spite of its flaws, and does some interesting things with the documentary form. If you’d like to find out more information about the movie, you can check out this Science Friday interview that host Ira Flatow did with Madsen.

The Red Chapel

It’s hard for me to sum up my feelings about “The Red Chapel,” director Mads Brügger’s film about North Korea. Simply describing the film doesn’t quite do it justice. The trailer helps a little, but doesn’t really encompass the whole scope of the film. What I can say is this: it is one of the best films I have seen so far this year, and if you are interested in documentaries as an art form, or even just the art of satire, you cannot afford to miss it.

I’ll do what I can to explain the movie, which has already been getting a decent amount of buzz (it won the World Cinema Jury Prize at Sundance). Mads Brügger is a Danish journalist who sets out on a crusade to expose the evils of the North Korean dictatorship of Kim Jong Il. He wants to go to the country to make his film but, of course, he has to do it in a way that won’t get him stopped or killed by the North Korean government. So he sets up a comedy troupe, named The Red Chapel (after a group of Nazi Germany-era communist spies) and sets them up as a sort of cultural exchange to teach the North Koreans about Danish comedy. The troupe consists of two Korean-born, Danish-raised comedians named Simon and Jacob. Jacob is a self-described “spastic,” a visibly physically handicapped man. Brügger uses Jacob as his lynchpin, because North Koreans do not tolerate physical handicaps, and the country’s handicapped babies (Brügger tells us) are usually either killed or sent to camps where they die fairly quickly. The rest of the film, which plays out like a weird mix of investigative journalism, “Borat” and “Waiting for Guffman,” follows Brügger and company’s journey in North Korea, their interactions with their handlers, and rehearsals for their cultural presentation. Phew!

The most impressive thing about “The Red Chapel” is that any of it ever happened at all. As cheeky as Brügger appears at the start of the film and through the narration, it’s just as obvious that he’s aware what he’s doing is dangerous and a little unethical. Jacob suffers an emotional breakdown during the course of filming, and it’s up to Brügger and Simon to try and keep up appearances in front of the Koreans, all the time fearing that the lot of them may get carted off to one of Kim Jong Il’s death camps hidden out in the North Korean countryside. Brügger has got to have a lot of balls to be able to pull off the stunt that he did, and I love him for it.

The other impressive element of the film is the way it presents the relationships between the Danish troupe and their Korean handlers, particularly Mrs. Pak, the government functionary who accompanies the troupe everywhere they go. The communications breakdowns between Brügger, Simon, Jacob and Mrs. Pak are pretty absurd, but all genuine. Mrs. Pak’s relationship to Jacob, too, is weird to watch. She constantly says that he feels like a son to her, even though she’s only known him for a few days. Does she really feel close to him? Or is she trying to put on a good face for the sake of her “dear leader?” It may be a little of both.

In any case, “The Red Chapel” is a fascinating film to watch. It may not be perfect (the end falls a little flat), but it’s a thrilling, funny, poignant and pretty much unprecedented look into a bizarre, two-faced society.

To find out what other folks have to say about the movie, check out this review from Cinematical’s Eugene Novikov.

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