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Propaganda and tears 

Vitalij Manskij gives us unique looks behind North Korea's facade – and what we see is truly a strange and terrible society.

This article is machine translated by Google from Norwegian

Under the sun
Director: Vitalij Manskij

There are very few who have been to North Korea. No wonder, for a more well-regulated and closed society, look for a long time. It is difficult to get in, and if you are there, you are followed by state guards around the clock. Every little step is monitored, something that Russian director Vitalij Manskij experienced when making his film Under the sun – a movie it would have been impossible to make if he had not agreed to use the script that the North Korean authorities themselves had designed. What they not had control over is how the staging exposes the control regime the citizens are under – and this is the red thread in Under the sun.

The guards who follow Mansky and his team occasionally show up, as technicians on a film set that accidentally landed in the picture frame. The two guards remind me of the two men in Kafkas process who comes from nowhere and arrests the protagonist without knowing why. They are there only, with an authority and self-indulgence that cannot become such characters elsewhere than in Kafka's novels and dictatorships.

The fathers see you. The country and everything that happens in it is like a story from the times of the great dictatorships which, for most of us, is history. The mass suggestion Kim Jong-un manages to find – or which his command can only fulfill, is more correct to say – is most of all reminiscent of the fanaticism of totalitarian regimes such as Hitler and Stalin. The comparison has some contact with reality, because at any given time there are between 150 and 000 North Koreans in the country's concentration camps. This is where people end up for the slightest critical comment about the regime – and often also their family. Everything in society is built around the cult around the Kim family, who came to power when the country was separated from South Korea in 200.

Everywhere – and then I really mean every single place â € “we find idealized representations of the leader and his family, both privately and in the public space. The style is social realist and heroic as in the socialist realism of the former Soviet Union. Everywhere there are also ritualized tributes to the national fathers.

When a girl does not know what she can do other than quote state propaganda when she is upset, we realize that the totalitarian permeates every little fiber of this society.

Thoroughly directed reality. Under the sun provides a unique insight into the life of an ordinary North Korean family and the time that leads to the family's youngest, an eight-year-old girl, being inaugurated in the party's youth organization.

Zin-Me's inauguration of the party's youth organization also takes place, of course, in the form of a tribute to the leaders' excellence and through an oath of allegiance to North Korea's "fantastic" and "heroic" history. These are stories that are repeated later in life for all North Koreans – from primary school, through the military, but also in working life where everyone regularly participates in a recycling of the message. No wonder the inhabitants tror on this, in the end, for there is no room to think differently.

The reality is identical with the state-controlled and directed interpretation of it.

Directed by everyday life. That life is thoroughly directed on a detailed level we see again and again, but it is the way the most everyday scenes are rehearsed that is most fascinating. In a scene where the young girl and her family are having dinner, they end up in a conversation about the national dish kimchi, which becomes a medium for cultivating Korean culture. "Kimchi is our traditional diet," says the father admonishingly. "If you eat 100 grams of kimchi daily and drink 70 centilitres of kimchi juice, you get all the important vitamins." The scene is recorded again and again. In the background we see Kim Jong-un and Kim Il-Sung's throne, high up on the wall, smiling with their chalk-white teeth.

It is in scenes like this where the friction between actual life and the ideology the citizens are forced into becomes most visible. The message must be repeated and learned, seamlessly, from the significance of national law to the excellence of the great leader. That the smallest things should sit, even when it comes to directing the body and gestures when the message is repeated, becomes embarrassingly clear when representatives of the state come in and instruct the family in when to laugh and how different words should be emphasized.

It all becomes downright absurd and frightening when one of them suggests that the girl can get a fresh red color in her face when she tells her father that kimchi protects against cancer.

Freedom and unfreedom. But then there was this with the gestures and gaze of the male body. It's not alt which can be controlled in that way – although there is no direct resistance to be seen in this film – but moments like when citizens walk and cycle through the streets, for example, constitute prosaic everyday activities that they share with everyone else in the world. In these moments they are not affected by ideology, but move with their own body, breathing with their own lungs. They are also under the sun, like all other people – in Norway, Guatemala, USA or Uganda. Only in such trivial facts is there a kind of community, for when they are just of the, under the sun, on his bike, there is no message about the "big Kim Jong-un" or the like that must be repeated. Such gaps are seen throughout the film. For example, in a factory where it is to be celebrated that the production is increased, but where the scene has to be repeated so many times that some of the participants get both bored and a little annoyed (even if they hide it well). The staging of spontaneity and boundless joy is not so easy to maintain when it has to be repeated to the point of boredom.

The most costly scene in the film occurs during a lecture – a war veteran tells how they won over the Americans in the Kopra War and learned to shoot down American planes with rifles by "their great leader". Along the way in the heroic stories, a little girl gets tired: she slips her eyes and nods her head again and again while the hero story is presented. The body has its own needs which here are allied with freedom. The girl withdraws, is about to fall asleep, because she is tired, but the sleep here becomes an expression of independence and freedom. If you are overwhelmed by sleep, you can not repeat the ideology and "the happy message". You are yourself when you sleep.

The humanity of tears. We see a more heartbreaking scene at the very end of the film, where Zin-Me suddenly starts crying. We see her face in close-up while tears roll down her cheeks. In the background we hear the guards' directing comments. Make her stop crying, they say, whereupon her mother asks if Zin-Me can think of anything nice. Can't you recite a poem you like that puts you in a good mood? she suggests.

But what comes when the girl opens her mouth again is the rule the children had to recite when they were to be inaugurated in the youth organization – the same syringe that is recycled throughout North Korean society about "the great leader Kim Jong-un". It is the she comes on, that's what she can say. But she is not happy.

Under the sun is a fundamentally hurt and sad film – because when a girl does not know what she can do other than quote state propaganda when she is sad, we realize that the totalitarian permeates every little fiber of this strange and terrible society. But in tears we see the essence of humanity – and the can not be directed.


Kjetil Røed
Freelance writer.

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