I think it is healthy to take a break from all of the depressing anti-teacher ed reform babble to share in something (sort of) positive.
Last year I encouraged everyone to watch Ross Kemp’s documentaries. He has ventured into some of the most dangerous and grittiest places in the world. Even though he has come face-to-face with some unsavory people, he never judges and his documentaries always come off as fair and sympathetic. Here is one he did about street gangs in St. Louis:
In a similar vein, British journalist Louis Theroux covers the dangerous, strange and bizarre. Like Ross Kemp, he suspends his judgments and tries to portray the people he meets in a sympathetic light. He also has an innocent manner of questioning that gets to the bottom of things for his viewers.
Here is my favorite Louis Theroux documentary about a Miami jail. Most of the men in this jail have not been convicted of a crime (after all, it is jail, not prison), yet many have been languishing behind bars for years. Both parts really bring home the horrendous conditions in our penal system and how it does nothing but steep people even further in criminal culture:
Also, check out his San Quentin piece which is on Youtube divided into several parts.
On a totally different note, Danish filmmaker Mads Brugger is in the tradition of Gonzo journalism (a la Hunter Thompson). He tells a story while playing a part in the story. Both of his films can be found on Netflix.
His first film was called The Red Chapel. Mads creates a fake comedy troupe called The Red Chapel. He is the fictional leader of the troupe, which consists of two Danish-Korean performers: Simon and Jacob. Jacob is a paraplegic and self-described “spastic”. Their mission is nothing less than to perform a totally unfunny stage variety show in North Korea.
When they first get to the DPRK, Simon and Jacob rehearse their awful sketch in front of their government minders. These minders then censor and edit every last bit of the performance to make it “suitable” for a DPRK audience. Their ultimate performance, shown towards the end of the movie, is not nearly as important as their journey getting there.
It has long been rumored that handicapped people in the DPRK are sent off to prison camps. The government is keen on using Jacob for propaganda purposes as a way to show the world these rumors are false. Ms. Park, their official guide, smothers Jacob with a scary amount of affection. This has led some critics to accuse Mads Brugger of allowing an evil government to play him and Jacob, so to speak. While these criticisms are understandable, Mads and the crew are able to get away with some very subversive things, things that no other sanitized DPRK documentary has ever shown.
The most powerful scene is during the “peace day” celebrations which is, ironically, the anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Jacob and Mads are in Pyongyang around thousands upon thousands of participants all chanting in unison. The only person not chanting is Jacob. While Mads goes along with the celebration, Jacob staunchly refuses to participate, even speaking against it when the crowd went silent so that EVERYONE in the area could hear it. This is not as dangerous as it sounds since, according to Brugger, the Koreans cannot understand Danish, especially “spastic Danish”, as Brugger says.
They are then forced to march with the crowd. When Mads is not pushing Jacob in his wheelchair fast enough, one of their government minders literally push them into the crowd forcing them to keep up so they can get on camera. Who is playing who in this movie? See if you can find all of the instances where Mads, Jacob and Simon poke fun at one of the most monstrous dictatorships that ever existed right to its face. Warning: an attention span might be required.
Brugger’s next documentary is even more bizarre, if that can be believed. It is called The Ambassador. This time he travels to the Central African Republic in search of blood diamonds. In order to do this he needs access to the highest levels of the CAR’s government. For Brugger, this means getting himself appointed a diplomat. He purchases phony diplomatic credentials in Europe that certify him as a consul in CAR representing Liberia. Yes, this very white and very European man was able to finagle fake documentation that made him a member of the Liberian diplomatic corps in Africa.
The cast of characters in this film is too long to describe here. Perhaps the most bizarre character of all is Mads himself, who plays his role as an intrigue-seeking diplomat to the hilt. His character is so over-the-top that it is a wonder that he is able to get away with so much in such a dangerous place. Yes, as some of the critics have pointed out, Brugger sometimes gives himself over to stereotypes about Africans being “childlike”, “corrupt” and/or “dishonest”. However, it is not at all clear that he was not doing it totally on purpose as part of his gaudy character.
There are so many lessons to be learned from this movie, not the least of which is the legacy of European imperialism in Africa. One of the more fascinating characters is a Frenchman named Guy-Jean Le Foll Yamande, the head of state security in the CAR. According to Yamande, he had his French citizenship revoked due to “mercenary activities”. In his conversation with Mads, he describes many of the ways the French continue to ransack the resources of the CAR while keeping the country mired in poverty. As Yamande put it, when you want to stop someone from running, you put a “stone in their shoe”. France is the “stone in the shoe” of the CAR. Did his privileged knowledge and position lead to his murder, which is mentioned towards the end of the movie?
Does Mads ever get his hands on the blood diamonds? Watch this movie and find out. It is really a fascinating, bizarre and sad look into the problems faced by many central African nations today. If you do not have Netflix, I believe the movie is also split into parts on Youtube.
Both of Brugger’s movies obviously put himself and the people around him in serious danger. The threat of a brutal death or some other horrible fate hangs over both documentaries like a pall. He has an admirable amount of guts, if you want to call putting yourself in constant danger in a foreign country “guts”.
Happy viewing. I hope some of you are able to find the time to watch these great filmmakers. You will not be disappointed.
P.S. – here is Brugger’s Danish television miniseries/documentary called Danes for Bush, a comical look at some of George W. Bush’s most ardent supporters in the U.S. It is not as refined as his two movies but it does have its value. Do not be put off by the Danish speaking in the first part, most of the series is in English: