In North Korea, behind the fixed smiles, a world of tears and bullying is revealed
Donald Kirk says, in the run-up to the party congress in Pyongyang, a new documentary about how the state brainwashes its subjects and forces them to participate in its scripted unreality should give us pause for thought
Russian documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky has managed to bamboozle his North Korean hosts in a confidence game that’s one of the better journalistic coups against the regime.
Mansky, having given Pyongyang the clear impression that he wanted to collaborate fully, totally deceived them in his portrayal of a young girl being groomed for a role in minutely scripted rehearsals for the anniversary two years ago of the birth of the late “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il. Far from churning out propaganda similar to a British team’s production in 2004 of a documentary, State of Mind, on a pair of girl gymnasts, Mansky’s Under the Sun focuses on an eight-year-old as she’s given orders by her handlers.
In so doing, he presents images that are shocking and amusing, wrenching and sardonic, in a 146-minute record of the girl, Zin Mi, mimicking the lines fed to her over a family dinner, at a rehearsal for a dance, at her induction into the “Young Pioneers”, at a speech that she has to declaim before rows of people. How did he do it? He and his two cameramen kept their cameras rolling as the girl’s handlers were priming her. Also his “soundman” had been hired for his Korean language skills. His hosts never saw through the subterfuge.
The deal called for the North Koreans to review all footage at the end of each day, but Mansky gave them only what he wanted them to see. The result is a revelation of how the North Koreans exercise mind control, how they brainwash a child, turning her into a robot whose every word and deed is dedicated to the greater glory of the Kim dynasty.
The film has immediate relevance as North Korea prepares to stage its first Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in 36 years next week. The whole point is to venerate the achievements of Kim Jong-un since he took over after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011. The North Koreans have left no stone unturned in the drive to make the congress a celebration of Kim Jong-un’s rule, an affirmation of the pervasive authority of the regime and an intimidation of all citizens as they struggle to survive.
Zin symbolises a country bowing in unison to a leader with the power of life and death over every one of his people. There is no trace of conflict or disagreement in the film. Neither Zin nor her parents question the lines they are told to repeat. There is no give and take, no discussion. Yet, inner feelings come out in the shots the North Koreans never realised were being recorded.
Zin silently sheds tears as her handler forces her again and again to master the plié – the dance step in which the performer’s knees bend outwards with the back kept straight. And she weeps again as she’s remembering the lines to recite to her audience – tears springing from the tension and bullying she’s enduring. The camera focuses on a girl who can hardly keep her eyes open during a propaganda lecture.
The party congress is going to be the same; all scripted and rehearsed, all the cheers and smiles artificial, all shots of Pyongyang and the congress looking beautiful and omnipotent. There will be no debate, no questions, no second thoughts as Kim and his aides make certain the congress displays the munificence of his dictatorship.
The North Koreans, though, don’t always succeed in such nonsense. In the case of Mansky’s film, they did not realise until he was gone that he was not producing another State of Mind.
Instead, a North Korean official had to write in protest to the Russian foreign ministry, demanding destruction of all copies of the film and punishment for Mansky. The Russians responded by blocking it in Russia, but it has won prizes at film festivals elsewhere. Now Mansky, who has not been charged with anything, plans to go to a Russian court to demand the right to have the film shown in his own country.
The North Koreans are inviting members of the international media for the party congress. It will be interesting to see if they can capture the hypocrisy and duplicity of an event that’s sure to be a huge show. Mansky’s film exemplifies the reporting that’s needed to reveal what’s going on as omnipresent minders shield visitors from disquieting realities.
Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea