'Under the Sun' documentary catches North Korea with its guard down

During a scene in “Under the Sun,” a North Korean minder orders uniformed workers to form a line on the factory floor before they speak on camera. “Say that joyfully,” orders the minder, a bespectacled, middle-aged man, as he prods the laborers to talk about how much they love their work producing soy milk.

What the minder didn’t realize, however, was that the cameras were already recording, and his pushy efforts to concoct an idyllic scene of industrial glee had all been captured.

“Under the Sun”, a feature-length documentary shot in North Korea, is a behind-the-scenes look at a poor country that casts itself as an abundant paradise, and a filmmaking coup of sorts. Director Vitaly Mansky spent two years negotiating with the North Korean government over permission to film a documentary in one of the world’s most inaccessible countries. Under the terms of their agreement, North Korea wrote the script and selected the subjects. Mansky and his crew were allowed to film only approved scenes in specific locations, and the North Koreans would delete any footage they deemed unacceptable.

But Mansky had a plan to get around the censors and capture unscripted footage of life in the reclusive state: He left the digital cameras rolling all day as the team of North Koreans assigned to oversee the shoot manufactured each scene, coaching subjects on what to say and how to say it. At the end of each day, the North Koreans would go through the day’s shoot, but in a risky move, in a country where foreigners who act out sometimes spend years in jail, the crew kept duplicate memory cards of all footage, that they then snuck out of North Korea.

The emotional core of “Under the Sun” is Zin-mi, an 8-year-old girl. Mansky’s camera follows her as she prepares to join the Children’s Union, a youth group, his tender filmmaking capturing her mixed emotions.

In carefully managed scenes, she attends chest-thumping ceremonies where she and the rest of the incoming members strike a shrill harmony as they shout their allegiance to North Korea’s ruling dynasty. She is shown in a bright, spacious apartment with her parents, digging into generously portioned meals.

The minders constantly demand more: more enthusiasm, more volume, bigger smiles. In posturing for the foreign crew’s cameras, accuracy is an afterthought: In a scene at a textile factory, a worker boasts of having surpassed the official production target by 150%. In the next take, just a couple of minutes later, that number becomes 200%.

Born in 1963 in eastern Ukraine, Mansky has made his career as a filmmaker exploring the space between how totalitarian states present themselves through propaganda, and the reality of life there. He has also made films in Cuba (2011’s “Motherland or Death”) and across the former Soviet Union. Mansky says his experience growing up in a dictatorship drew him to the subject of North Korea.

“‘Under the Sun’ is my attempt to understand my own past, my own country, and how humans live with this kind of limited freedom,” Mansky said, speaking through a Russian-language interpreter during a Skype interview.

Mansky spent a total of around two months over three trips to North Korea, and says he found life there to be more restricted than his childhood in a post-Stalin era. “In the Soviet Union, people still had private lives. In North Korea, people don’t belong to themselves,” Manksy said.

“Under the Sun” is set against the drab, gray background of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, with no narration and a morose, string-heavy score. Despite the minders’ efforts to control what Mansky’s could film, the harshness of life in North Korea comes through in scenes where unkempt children rummage through a trash can, and as commuters disembark from a dilapidated bus then push it into the station.

Even before “Under the Sun” was screened (it opens on July 15 at Laemmle Monica Film Center in Los Angeles), North Korea was up in arms after hearing that Mansky had brought unapproved footage out of the country.

Mansky says the North Koreans immediately complained to the Russian Foreign Ministry, which had been a partner in the production, and tried to stop screenings of the film. Zin-mi’s mother, who also appears in the film, was quoted by a North Korean state-run website, expressing her outrage at the final product, calling Mansky “dark-hearted” and asking “Is he even human?”

Throughout the film, Zin-mi is mostly resolute, executing her scenes with the stiffness of a newbie actor, but more than once she is overcome by the pressure to perform. Her concentration noticeably wanes as she sits through a rambling school lecture, and later, she breaks down and cries when asked to explain how she feels about joining the children’s union. As she uses her sleeve to wipe tears from her eyes and struggles to stay in character, a voice off-screen says, “Stop her crying.”

Films featuring children have long been an important North Korean propaganda vehicle, even more so since 2011 when young leader Kim Jong Un took power, says Tatiana Gabroussenko, a lecturer who studies North Korean film at Korea University in Seoul. “North Korea is a state that infantilizes its people, and the state uses child characters to show how people need guidance from the leaders,” Gabroussenko said.

Mansky says there was one thing about Zin-mi that was different from the other children he has filmed throughout his career. “All over the world when I’ve filmed children, they showed curiosity, they ran up to the camera to look at themselves, and asked questions,” Mansky said.

“Throughout the whole shoot, Zin-mi never once looked at herself in the camera, and never once asked a question,” he said. “It was like something out of science fiction.” 

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An earlier version of this post stated that director Vitaly Mansky spent his childhood under Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin. He grew up in the post-Stalin era.
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