This Is the Documentary North Korea Doesn’t Want You to See
It's going to make you question what you think you know about North Korea.
At first, the film looks exactly like what the North Korean government wanted: a beautiful piece of propaganda that shows just how hard working, harmonious and happy North Koreans are.
But that's not what Vitaly Mansky had envisioned for Under the Sun, a new documentary in theatres across North America this month. The director, born and raised in the Soviet Union, had spent more than two years negotiating access to the Hermit Kingdom so that he could create a documentary giving the outside world an inside look at the lives of an average North Korean family.
Instead, he quickly found that not only would the government be scripting the entire film, a team of officials would be dictating locations, characters and supervising every scene.
"We've shot in difficult places, but we never imagined how much control they would impose," said Simone Baumann, one of the film's producers from Germany.
The film follows eight-year-old Zin-mi and her parents as she prepares to join North Korea's Children's Union. But government control of the film was total. So Mansky turned to more covert tactics.
He kept the cameras rolling between takes, capturing the hovering officials as they emerged from behind the scenes to direct his film. And just like that, the curtain vanished.
"It really does call into question other documentaries that say they were made with no interference at all," said journalist and professor Robert Boynton. "I'm not sure I believe that anymore." He interviewed Mansky extensively through a translator for the New York Times and has interviewed several North Korean defectors for his book on the country's abduction of Japanese citizens, The Invitation Only Zone.
In the film, the government minders show up at the family's apartment. They're at the mother's factory to make sure the workers are as chipper and collegial as they should be. And when a North Korean veteran forgets to mention the Children's Union in a speech to a room full of students, the guides step in to fill the painfully awkward silence. At times, it's comical.
But it's also surprisingly creepy to see strange men dressed in black lurch into the frame inside a family's modest apartment and tell them how to eat their dinner.
That scene in particular, which occurs early in the film, gives you a sense of what's to come: a chilling, tragic and fascinating portrait of life under the thumb of Big Brother Kim.
Despite Mansky's background and experience shooting in restricted environments, some things still surprised him. "He's never been to a place where the kids don't look at the camera," said Boynton. "There were a few small moments where a kid decided to stick their tongue out. But it shocked him how controlled they were."
In order to get the footage, Mansky used some pretty basic subterfuge: "It was as simple as the North Koreans not knowing that some cameras can still be recording even if the red light is not blinking," said Boynton. "They thought they could monitor it that way and they couldn't."
But Mansky still had to hand over the video he shot each day for approval. Little did the minders know the camera was recording the same footage on two memory cards. The crew would hand over one and make a copy of the other. The officials would delete what they disapproved of and were kept in the dark about the copies.
Mansky even went as far as hiring a Russian expert in Korean and training her to be the film's sound recorder, so she could tell them what the government officials were discussing around them. "She was our spy," he told Boynton.
And so we follow Zin-mi's indoctrination through school, family life, and dance class as her parents' co-workers are forced to congratulate them on their daughter's success with ever-greater enthusiasm.
North Korea eventually got wind of the film after it started getting attention at festivals. The regime officially complained to the Russian government, which had provided funding for the production. But even under pressure, Mansky refused to remove Russia's name from the film.
Critics, including a former Russian culture minister, have said releasing the documentary put the family in danger. But Boynton said Mansky was, "very concerned about the family." "He edited with an eye to protecting them," and used only scenes that would not reflect negatively on them.
"It's difficult for North Korea to judge them," said Baumann. "The officials appreciated the job they did. Everything according to script. The mother said in an interview that it was her daughter's first acting job and she did so great."
Since the film came out, Zin-mi has become something of a celebrity in her country. North Korean media claim she was seen giving Kim Jong-Un flowers after the 7th Congress of the Workers Party in May.
As for the fate of the minders, Mansky told Boynton he was unconcerned. "They are part of the propaganda apparatus," said Boynton. "People [in North Korea] are being punished and rewarded constantly. I don't think they're going to be starved in the gulag."
Others, like Canadian human rights organization JAYU, have questioned the value of the film entirely if all it does is show us "what we already know" about North Korea.
But Boynton disputes that idea. "[What we know is] constantly being stripped away. It's like one of those Russian dolls. You open it and there's another one and another one."
And for Boynton's money, this film is the closest we've come to knowing what goes on in North Korea. "It's so hyper accurate it makes you question other previous depictions of North Korea," he said. "The role of artifice and pageantry and theatre is enormous. Mansky is the first one who really understood that. The reality is the non-reality."
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