Special to WorldTribune.com
Russian documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky has managed to bamboozle his North Korean hosts in a confidence game that’s one of the greater journalistic coups ever scored against the regime.
Mansky, having given the North Koreans the clear impression that he wanted to collaborate fully with them, totally deceived them in his portrayal of a little girl as she was groomed for her role in minutely scripted rehearsals for the anniversary two years ago of the late “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il’s birth.
Far from churning out propaganda similar to a British team’s production in 2004 of the documentary “A State of Mind” on a pair of girl gymnasts, Mansky’s “Under the Sun” focuses on the eight-year-old as she’s ordered around by her handlers.
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 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 let their cameras keep rolling as the girl’s handlers were priming her. He also had a sound man whom he had hired for his skills as a Korean speaker. 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 same kind of stuff in “State of Mind” about the two gymnasts. From the outset he had in mind a documentary that would cast the regime as a cruel dictatorship. 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 Workers’ Party Congress 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, the affirmation of the pervasive authority of the regime, and the intimidation of all citizens as they struggle to survive.
In microcosm, Zin Mi symbolizes 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 she 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 realized were being recorded.
Zin Mi silently sheds tears as her handler forces her again and again to master a plie ― the tiring dance step in which the dancer’s feet turn outward during what looks like a deep-knee bend. Not easy. And she weeps again as she’s remembering the lines to recite to her audience ― tears springing from the tension and the bullying she’s enduring. The camera focuses on one girl as she can hardly keep her eyes open during a propaganda lecture.
The upcoming Party Congress is going to be the same, all lines 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 Jong-Un 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 “Under the Sun,” they did not realize until he was done and gone that he was not producing a film like “A State of Mind,” so much to their liking that it won a couple of prizes at the Pyongyang International Film Festival a dozen years ago.
Instead a North Korean official wrote a letter of protest to the Russian foreign ministry, demanding destruction of all prints of the film and punishment for Mansky.
The Russians responded by blocking it from being shown in Russia, but it’s won prizes at film festivals elsewhere. Now Mansky, not charged with anything, plans to sue in a Russian court demanding the right to have the film shown in his country.
The North Koreans are inviting members of the international media for the Congress. It will be interesting to see if they capture the hypocrisy and duplicity of an event that’s sure to be one 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 has been covering the conflict of forces on the Korean peninsula for decades. He’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.