A State of Mind

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September 9, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

Sometimes a documentary comes along that really needs no special formulation or pitch. Sometimes simply recording what is immediately there is enough. British filmmaker Daniel Gordon’s A State of Mind is surely one such film. Were it based anywhere else the subject matter, following two young girls as they practice and hone their gymnastics skills, would at most constitute a niche interest and could hardly attract much attention from those outside of that particular discipline. The amazing element to Gordon’s film is that these two girls, thirteen year old Hyon Sun and eleven year old Song Yun, are citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or simply North Korea), recognised as the most isolated state in world politics. Thus these girls’ every move, every word and every action represents a world of new meaning to those of us who dwell outside of their country’s boundaries. It would seem Gordon has made something of a career out of this; this film standing as one of three documentaries he has made to date regarding matters of North Korean society. Having apparently built some degree of trust with the government there he certainly occupies a unique position in documentary filmmaking.

Filmed with unparalleled cooperation from the North Korean government we follow the two young girls as they train for their roles in the upcoming Arirang Festival, or The Mass Games. Though mass choreographed exercises developed for internal propagandist purposes have their beginnings in Eastern European countries1, in modern times they are most fully associated with the DPR Korea which manages a quality of choreography and a sense of grandeur the likes of which cannot be found regularly assembled anywhere else on Earth. An equivalent might be found in the opening ceremonies for the Olympic games but that moves from place to place unlike this particular festival, an entirely national event. For those involved it is a massively demanding pursuit. The film follows the girls over nine months of training and the knowledge hangs over them that if they do not make the required grade they will not get to perform. Though young, both Hyon Sun and Song Yun are veterans of the festival having performed before “The General” Kim Jong-il, on previous occasions. It would be the highest privilege to be allowed to repeat that honour in the upcoming showcase.

Complaints have been laid against the film for its lack of detail regarding the hardships and human rights violations that make up most of western media coverage regarding the state. Although it’s true that this film obviously took care not to tread on any toes that doesn’t negate its worth. What is so telling and important about the film is that it instead offers a genuine account of the day to day lives of some of North Korea’s citizenry; albeit, among the better off. Tellingly, at a screening at the Tribeca film festival, director Gordon noted that the primary opposition to the film came not from the North Korean authorities but from Western distribution companies who felt the film didn’t accurately portray the country as they understood it2. Critiques of North Korea’s regime and its ideology are for others to air and for those interested it’s not difficult to find examples of the country’s failings3.

Such issues take a backseat here as the documentary gives us insights into the workings, physical and mental, of some of the country’s more privileged citizens. This more relaxed approach works on two fronts as it both confronts us with the basic humanity and ‘sameness’ of these people to those we see everyday, despite the regime under which they live, while also, in that familiarity, heightening the tragedy of their situation. Like one of the better fictional treatments of North Korean identity of the last decade, Chan-wook Park’s Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA (aka. J.S.A. Joint Security Area), A State of Mind is a human rather than a political piece. If politics must invariably raise its head in a society where the government exerts such close control then it is still always framed through the immediate concerns of those interviewed.

Given free range to talk the girls and their families openly discuss their concerns and goals, always with great adulation for the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il and his deceased father, the Eternal President, Kim Il-sung4. For the two girls at the centre of the film their greatest goal is to master their routines for the Arirang Festival and, in so doing, please Kim Jong-il with their demonstration of complete subjugation of the individual to the group. That is the ideological goal of the displays. Thankfully the girls also easily represent their own individual personalities. Even in this stifled system the elder Hyon Sun recalls skipping gym practices when she was younger because they were boring and she preferred to play with her friends. Likewise Song Yun, when her sister leaves home to join the People’s Army, tactfully announces her great pride in her sibling before appending, with a smile, that it’s nice to have a bedroom of her own now.

As we follow the girls to school, to their ‘Revolutionary History’ class which teaches of American aggression and English classes that take place under a banner announcing that learning the language is akin to equipping yourself with a weapon with which to defeat imperialists, we see normal children beneath all the auspices of totalitarian government. In the run-up to the festival the young girls train for hours every day, always in large groups which ensures smooth choreography and unity. The truth is, for anyone deeply involved in gymnastics anywhere, the demands in terms of time and dedication are probably about equal, but here the sense of grander social involvement is immense. Everywhere around the capital city Pyongyang we can see groups of people training for their role in the festival. There’s no doubt the system works. Pride and unity could never be higher than when those involved discuss The Mass Games and their impact.

While Gordon and co. avoid overt criticism of the regime and the society it harbours (or hinders) there’s plenty to be found in the simple documenting of daily life. In a voice-over Gordon tells us that there are three classes in North Korean society, all equally valued: the peasants, workers and intellectuals. Hyon Sun’s father, a professional driver for the government, falls into the worker class while Song Yun’s father, a physics lecturer, is of the intellectual division. True to form their government-issued apartments seem mostly the same. The government provides everything for its people here although we are informed that it is deemed a privilege to live in the city of Pyongyang; perhaps because even in a cloistered environment such as this there’s little hiding the deprivation in more rural areas.

Although the apartments seem bright and functional they hardly hold the families within. Hyon Sun’s grandparents live with the family and sleep on the living room floor. Meanwhile, before her eldest sister went to the army with her taekwondo skill, Sung Yun had to alternate between her two sisters’ bedrooms each night. Meanwhile, although we see plenty of food on the table, we’re told that strict rationing applies and mothers (all women interviewed here are housewives) have to make do with a set amount each month. More telling of the nation’s state is that each kitchen hosts a radio which broadcasts the nation’s sole station into each home. While you may raise or lower the volume, we are told, there is no way to switch the radio off. Meanwhile Song Yun’s family boasts a television set, a present from the government for her involvement and success in the national games. Broadcasting for five hours a day, the television treats the family to endless reruns of parades, programs about Kim Jong-il’s daily routines and, for the children, cartoons laced with militaristic overtones that suit the country’s larger agenda.

Elsewhere Gordon manages to communicate just how isolated North Korea is from the rest of the world. Filming through the SARS epidemic he notes that the country, fearful of an outbreak, severed all travel in and out of the country, a feat achieved through cancelling the mere six flights a week through China that service the entire nation. Handing the spotlight to Hyon Sun’s mother Gordon gets an account of the ‘Arduous March,’ the period of grave economic depression that engulfed the country following the death of Kim Il-sung. She talks of hardships and shortages of food but also of how, through practice of Juche, the state philosophy of self-reliance, they got by with their limited resources. Though a less than complete representation of the period, Hyon Sun’s mother, at the time of filming in the early 2000s, became the first North Korean citizen officially allowed to speak to foreigners about such matters.

Talk of self-reliance becomes more prevalent when Song Yun’s family take a trip to the countryside to visit an old military friend of their father’s. To travel outside of your city or village in North Korea you have to attain an official permit; though hardly remarked upon within the film it seems a clear method of hiding the extent of hardship throughout many of the country’s rural quarters. It being a two day national holiday to celebrate the life of the Eternal President, celebrations abound across the country as everyone puts on a brave face. Truly it’s good to be a citizen of such an upstanding country even if, as anyone who follows world aid supplies knows, North Korea’s self-sufficiency is not altogether self-sufficient.

As a final excursion the two girls and a group of other honoured classmates are brought on a trip to volcanic Mount Baekdu, considered a holy location in the history of both Koreas as ancient folklore cites the adjoining Heaven Lake as the birthplace of the nation. Following a thirty-one hour train ride, perhaps a statement on the country’s infrastructure rather than the actual distance travelled, the girls arrive at the scenic site and find their sense of national pride swelling. With military personnel dotting the area along with huge statues built to honour North Korea’s leaders and army, the place is a site of pilgrimage which all North Koreans are expected to visit at least once in their lifetime. With the amazing vistas of the mountain in their hearts the girls return for the Arirang Festival, the film documenting their specific portion of the grander spectacle.

Here Gordon’s sense of directorial authorship perhaps takes on more important shades as, while long-shots provide us an overview of the grand spectacle, plenty of time is given to closer images specifically showing us the girls playing their parts. It is an ocean of people but, contrary to what the government might want to impart, it is also an ocean of individual stories. On this note, the film always utilises subtitles that communicate the sentiments of its interviewees rather than voiceovers as are often preferred in this format. It’s of vital importance that we hear these people speak even if we can’t directly understand their words. To hear them speak is to recognise they each have an individual voice. Meanwhile the assured aesthetic beauty of the performance is undermined by the political forces that shape what we are witnessing. Though united, and strong, there’s so little these people can really hope to do with their lot.

Though beautiful, and perhaps the envy of choreographers around the world, the scope, scale and frequency of these exhibitions points to a culture deprived of alternatives. If this is the cost of such beauty then can it be justified? Such is the portrait of this country through Gordon’s lens. Though never openly critical (the film actually won two awards at the Pyongyang International Film Festival) it tells us plenty about this nation’s dangerous failings through simple association. Nonetheless it also assures, even surprises us, with the bright, good-natured and warm dispositions of its subjects. Gordon’s film succeeds admirably as it tells us that, even in such oppressive conditions, children still play and people still dream, families still bicker and bond and, fundamentally, humanity still asserts itself albeit in a strange frame. A State of Mind is a bridge, albeit tentatively supported, into another country, another society and almost another world. Tackling the regime is work for another project. In capturing the humanity beneath the regime we can only hope that whatever the solutions, A State of Mind will be taken to heart by those seeking to help.

1 The Sokol Movement in Czech history, traced back to the 1860s would seem to set the precedent for all later incarnations (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokol)

2 IMDb User Review (source: http://www.imdb.com/user/ur4984152/comments)

3 As starting points international media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières ranks DPR Korea 174 out of 175 nations for Freedom of Press (source: http://en.rsf.org/report-north-korea,58.html) whilst Amnesty International, who are not even allowed access to the country, paint a stark picture of the regime too (source: http://www.amnestyusa.org/all-countries/north-korea/page.do?id=1011213)

4 The founder and leader of the country since its foundation in 1948, when Kim Il-sung died in 1994 he was declared the nation’s ‘Eternal President,’ a title that is now enshrined in DPR Korea’s constitution. Of course the running of the nation was passed to his son, Kim Jong-il, but he is officially exercising power under the authority of a dead man.

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