Sundance Winner Mads Brügger on North Korea Exposé ‘The Mole,’ Relying on ‘Fool’s Luck’
Art and Experience:
Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger, who won a Sundance best director award for “Cold Case Hammarskjöld,” expected a bigger fallout following the release of his latest film, “The Mole: Undercover in North Korea,” he admitted during his CineLink Talk at Sarajevo Film Festival.
His documentary, focusing on two men embarking on a mission to expose the secrets of the Korean Friendship Association (KFA) and its Spanish president, is shown at the festival in the Dealing with the Past section, alongside his previous efforts “The Ambassador,” an investigation of the blood diamond trade in Africa, and “Cold Case Hammarskjöld,” about the mysterious death of the secretary general of the United Nations.
“I thought it would lead to the arrest of Alejandro Cao de Benós, but nothing has happened. All of this made me contemplate that maybe he is a double agent himself,” said Brügger, teasing a possible continuation of the larger-than-life saga that some mistook for a work of fiction. “Never say never.”
He defended his frequent use of hidden cameras, calling them “the ultimate weapon in journalism.” “It’s the most radical device you can deploy,” he said. “When we do use them, it’s when we are documenting criminal activity. Another rule is, would it be possible to film it in any other way? Most likely, the answer would be, ‘Forget about it’.”
Brügger, who had previously probed the enigmatic dictatorship in his 2006 documentary “The Red Chapel,” remains fascinated by its inner workings. “If I had known back then what I know about North Korea today, I probably wouldn’t have gone there,” he added, mentioning a book by B. R. Myers called “The Cleanest Race.”
“His thesis is that if we are to understand North Koreans, we have to closely examine their propaganda. What do they show their own people? [Myers] quotes a banner that says, ‘The blood of our masses is the purest blood in the world.’ Which leads to the doctrine that because they are so pure, they are also very innocent. They are a country of children, basically, so they need strong parental guidance.”
Despite his success, Brügger still describes filmmaking as something he does “on the side.” But he views his vast experience as a journalist, television host and author of several books as an advantage, not a handicap.
“Many filmmakers within the documentary community frown upon ‘journalism’. They see it as something that’s not cinematic enough or appealing. I did radio documentaries too and it’s a nice way to start if you want to move into film, figuring out how to tell stories through sound,” he said.
He expressed an interest in music-making, but that will not become another string in his professional bow. “I play the ukulele. I don’t want to compare myself to Sherlock Holmes, but it’s like when he plays the violin – it’s just not working out.”
During the talk, Brügger also gave a shout out to his famous compatriots, Lars von Trier and producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen, whose combined body of work and achievements “took Danish cinema to a whole new level,” he observed.
“If we want to reach larger audiences, we need to make films that work in other languages and cultures. That’s the miracle of cinema that, say, a Lars von Trier film ‘The Idiots’ can be seen and enjoyed in Indonesia or Eritrea, or Argentina.”
Often treading dangerous waters with his films, Brügger prefers his projects to be “cheap budget-wise, fast and out of control,” always leaving something to chance. But as he becomes more recognizable, his preferred methods are bound to change in the future.
“My days of working undercover, relying on people not knowing who I am and what I do, are gone because of my films,” he said.
“I still rely on the phenomenon that we in Denmark call ‘fool’s luck’. If you risk everything, including your livelihood and probably also your very existence, reality will reward you. It doesn’t favor office clerks who work 9-to-5 jobs; it’s in favor of the risk and thrill-seekers. It’s something I have experienced a multitude of times.”