NEW YORK — The conditions placed on director Vitaly Mansky for shooting a film in North Korea were severe.
For what was ostensibly to be a “documentary,” North Korea would supply the script. The state would choose the subjects, too, as well as the location of all scenes. He would be accompanied at all times by several state officials who would control the production. And North Korea would have final say on any footage that was used.
Yet even in these impossible circumstances, Mansky managed to make a film that gives a haunting and rare look into North Korean life and the stranglehold the country’s totalitarian regime has on its people.
Once it became clear how restricted he and his crew would be, Mansky resolved to let the camera run before and after a scene, capturing the government handlers’ manipulation of daily life: propaganda in action.
“On the second or third day when we were sure that we didn’t have the slightest chance to get through to the real life, we decided the only chance we had to film was to film the ‘take’ in full,” said Mansky, speaking in Russian through a translator. “I think that I saw only three percent of the reality in North Korea, and only .03 percent that I was able to film.”
“Under the Sun,” which is expanding in limited release, may be a small window into North Korea, but it’s enough to see an expansive tragedy.
In the North Korea of the film, not just supposedly real scenes are orchestrated, all of life is stage-managed. It’s centered on a family intended to be representative. A couple’s 8-year-old girl, Zin-mi, is preparing to join the Children’s Union, a militaristic youth group that all North Korean children pass through.
The film, for example, shows the actors playing a family being coached for a dinner scene. Factory workers are told to “say that joyfully.” Children are instructed to “hate the Japanese, the Americans, their puppets and all our other enemies.”
Mansky, who grew up in Soviet Union-controlled Ukraine and has made films about living under totalitarian and communist regimes his life’s work, expected to find signs of quiet rebellion but witnessed only complete indoctrination.
He came away troubled by what he called a nation without private life, utterly unaware of life outside their country.
“I was absolutely at a loss. I probably returned from North Korea with more questions about how it’s possible than I had when I went there,” he said. “I would be happy to be wrong, but it seemed like everything was so deeply rooted in their hearts.”
Since censors checked their film daily, the filmmakers smuggled footage by making duplicate memory cards. Every night they barricaded their door with furniture and kept the backpacks containing the footage near their beds. In their Pyongyang hotel room, they spoke in code.
Before the project was completed, the North Koreans denied Mansky a planned final trip to the country, and so he edited what they had.
The resulting film culminates in a devastating scene where Zin-mi is asked what joining the Children’s Union means for her. She responds that she’s now responsible like an adult and expected to serve “the Respected Leader.”
She begins to cry. Handlers urge her to stop and “think of something good” but she can’t imagine anything.
Instead, she recites a poem about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“It took me a few hours to get back to normal,” says Mansky. “She was saying goodbye to her natural self.”
The film has won good reviews on the festival circuit and spawned some controversy.
The Museum of Modern Art scheduled it as part of its 2016 Doc Fortnight festival in February but pulled it partly over concerns that a screening it might provoke North Korea the way the 2014 comedy “The Interview” did. The museum later apologized and said the film was “wrongly disinvited.”
“Under the Sun” did draw North Korea’s attention, Mansky said.
“When the film started getting notices at film festivals, they were very critical and they demanded the Russian side destroy the film,” says Mansky. “The Russian government agreed with the North Koreans on this issue but they couldn’t succeed. The Russian side couldn’t do anything because by that time I lived and worked in another country.”
“I was grossly surprised,” he added. “I couldn’t imagine that Russia had gone so far away from what a normal civilized society is. I understand why. North Korea was one of 10 countries that supported annexation of the Crimea.”
Mansky now lives in Riga, the Latvian capital, and has been thankful for their reception of him.
But, he said, “I would be much happier in my own apartment in Moscow.”