Documentary offers peek at life in North

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Documentary offers peek at life in North

When his new film about North Korean life premiered last month at the Pyeongyang Film Festival, Daniel Gordon was surprised to see the audience laugh at the most ordinary things ― like old men playing cards in the park, or the shabby-looking North Korean flag painted on a small pleasure boat in a pond in a park. He asked a translator why they were laughing at things that were so mundane.
“That’s exactly why,” Mr. Gordon said the woman told him. “We’ve never seen our ordinary lives portrayed on screen. It’s always the ideal.”
Mr. Gordon recounted that anecdote last weekend during a Q&A session after his film, “A State of Mind,” was screened at the Pusan International Film Festival. He found that the largely South Korean audience at one screening was laughing at similarly trivial moments ―moments of feeling, “They are just like us.”
Indeed, for the English director of two documentaries on North Korea ― “The Game of Their Lives,” on the nation’s Cinderella soccer team in the 1966 World Cup, and “A State of Mind,” about the North Korean Mass Games ― the 13 visits to North Korea for his latest film were an opportunity to rebut “the remarkable untruths” about the lives of North Koreans as reported in the West.
“A State of Mind” is a 90-minute documentary about the preparations for the Mass Games, one of the biggest events in North Korea, involving thousands of performers. The film follows two young gymnasts and their families in the eight months before the games, capturing images of daily life in North Korea that have remained hidden to the Western world.
“When I was invited to the ceremonies arranged by the House of Communist Party, they asked me things like ‘How old is your queen?’ or ‘When is your queen’s birthday?,’” Mr. Gordon said in an interview ― confirming the significance of Kim Jong-il’s birthday in North Korea as one of the most important national holidays.
It’s clear that the families of the gymnasts portrayed in the film, who were selected by the North Korean State Film Company, live better than most North Koreans do (Mr. Gordon says as much in his narration). The father of one of the gymnasts is a physics professor at Kim Il-Sung University; another father works in the construction business, an elite class in the North. There are scenes of family meals where the plates seem too fancy for an ordinary dinner. The families portrayed in the film seemed generally prosperous, even compared to middle-class citizens in South Korea.
There are, however, parts that reveal some shocking realities about one of the world’s most secretive societies. There are scenes of frequent blackouts in Pyeongyang, the country’s capital, during family dinners, and the mother casually goes out in search of candles.
In the most telling scene, a mother of one gymnast frankly talks about the difficulty the family went through during the severe famine that followed the U.S. economic sanctions in the early 1990s, often referred to as the “Arduous March” in North Korea. During this period, she says, her daughter’s birthday present was a larger portion of corncob porridge.
It’s almost astonishing how the North Koreans in the film accept the poverty from that period as part of the nation’s efforts to remain independent, instead of resenting the government system or doubting the leadership of Kim Jong-il. Threats from the U.S. government, Mr. Gordon says, seem to be an obvious reason for the national solidarity.
“There was actual fear about a U.S. attack among the North Koreans,” he says, noting there were emergency drills and area practices in central Pyeongyang. “Donald Rumsfeld actually said the U.S. would go to war on two fronts before going into Iraq.”
Mr. Gordon, who has already begun his next film about American soldiers who defected to the North, observes that there have been some major economic changes in Pyeongyang in the past three years, including the advent of street vendors.
“Most of them I’ve met seemed pretty happy with the way they lived,” he said. “Of course, everything wasn’t lovely, lovely. But they were genuinely interested in walking and talking to us when no one was around. And within the system they were given, they seemed happy.”

by Park Soo-mee
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