Everyday life in North KoreaHad the North Korean soccer players from the documentary “The Game of Their Lives” walked into the theater of Dongsung Arts Center last Thursday, the crowd of South Korean journalists would likely have run onstage to greet them with enthusiasm.
It was the first press screening of the documentary on North Korea, shot with official permission from the North’s government. The film, which looks at the lives of the remaining members of the 1966 North Korean World Cup soccer team which beat Italy by 1:0, was a refreshing reminder of the sports nationalism that caused such passion here as well in 2002 when South Korea co-hosted the World Cup.
At a conference following the screening of this and a second documentary, “A State of Mind”, British director Daniel Gordon addressed the press. Referring to the unusually large crowd of reporters in the arthouse theater, he quipped, “It looks like I am joining a football league.”
The film focuses on the everyday lives of the North Koreans who surround the country’s individual sports heroes. It shows scenes of daily lives being lived in peace in Pyongyang, the North’s capital, that have never before been seen by the west, forcing the audience to reconsider the news images we’ve seen about North Korea, still one of the most secretive places on earth.
However, rather than viewing the North’s society through an ideological filter, the director has delved into the civic devotion imposed upon the players’ minds, paralleling their roles within the team to those of individuals within the communist state.
In “The Game of Their Lives,” the players repeatedly state that the failure of the Italian team in England in 1966 was because the team lacked organizational skill. In “A State of Mind” Gordon focuses on North Korea’s Mass Games ― an acrobatic display involving tens of thousands of children, young men and women ― as a poignant metaphor of spectacular socialist realism under the communist system, in which individuals merely exist as tool for the state’s purposes.
In both films, there are many parallels between the sports being played and the social reality of the players. In “The Game of Their Lives” he juxtaposes footage of the North Korean soccer players competing against large Russian players with statues of the North’s military troops aggressively wielding swords in the city of Pyongyang.
In a scene from “A State of Mind” where schoolboys flip the wrong cards during a mass game practice, Gordon presents the impossible ideals of the communist system, in which an individual must sacrifice personal desire for the good of the state.
The films emanate unusual charm for documentaries about North Korea by portraying the social reality of its people without fatal pessimism.
In “The Game of Their Lives,” the surviving players of the North’s successful team introduce themselves by stating their name and team number as the camera rolls. The sequence seems a bit abrupt at first, then serves to reinforce the dignity the players have long deserved as individual citizens.
Yet there are stark moments in both movies where the personal lives of those featured collide jarringly with the political ideals of North Korean society.
Scenes from “A State of Mind” where schoolgirls joke during break about skipping classes and dancing to a silly song contrast with the film’s opening scene, in which one of them sits against a dark background, speaking of how blessed she is, through the grace of the state’s dear leader, Kim Jong-il, to be able to dance.
There are more telling scenes, such as when the players from “The Game of Their Lives” start to sob in Mansudae as they reminisce on their victory and about their country’s late leader, Kim Il-sung.
Already the films, which were co-produced by the BBC, have attracted global attention.
Both films have won awards at noted film festivals, the most significant screening being at the Pyongyang International Film Festival where both films received a warm response. (“The Game of their Lives” has been screened on North Korean television more than 10 times.)
“A State of Mind” opened recently at the Film Forum in New York. It was an interesting venue considering much of the film describes the potent fear felt by North Koreans when President George W. Bush referred to the country as one of an “axis of evil.”
“The reactions of the Americans were quite telling,” Gordon said. “They know very little about North Korea. They never saw North Koreans living ordinary lives.” I think the reactions wouldn’t be very different here.”
The films can be a challenge for South Koreans to watch as they demand an objective perception of their closest neighbor which many see as either “an enemy” or “a brother.” They also give an unsettling reminder that their popularity is due largely to the interest in North Korea itself, a state that the world has become suspicious of.
One Korean audience member wrote on an Internet site for “A State of Mind”, “The film made me sigh. I was disturbed by the social restraint put on peoples’ lives there, maybe because I was just as brainwashed as the girls in the movie when I was growing up, but to anti communism.”
Another reviewer said, “I think it’s an assignment for the film audience to try to see what’s really inside.”
Already there has been speculation that the North Korean government may be using Gordon’s documentaries as a way to carefully expose themselves to the outside world. (Both films were shot with the full support of the North Korean government. In an interview, Gordon said that while he was shooting the second film, “A State of Mind,” a North Korean police official tried to interrupt the crew’s filming of a public performance at Kim Il-sung Square. When the film’s guide told the official Gordon was the director who filmed “The Game of their Lives,” the official pushed away a state cameraman to give the film crew a better spot.)
Whatever the outcome, the films are the first documentaries shot in North Korea available to the South Korean general public without censorship.
Gordon’s new film in progress, “Crossing the Lines,” is about American defectors to North Korea in the 1960s.
by Park Soo-mee
“The Game of their Lives” and “A State of Mind” open at Dongsung Arts Center, Daehangno, today. To get to Dongsung, get off at Hyehwa Station (line 4) through exit 1. Go between Naksan Garden and the Bangsik Flower shop. Walk straight for 3 minutes. The theater is on your left. For more information call 02-766-3390.