The truth has a way of slipping through even the most tightly clenched totalitarian fingers. Such was the case with Under the Sun, a documentary co-created by a Russian filmmaker and North Korea’s psychotic regime. It was supposed to depict a happy family living in the Worker’s Paradise, but it ended up exposing Pyongyang’s propaganda machine.
As CNN delicately observes, “it is unclear whether the film crew and the North Koreans ever had the same vision for how the film should turn out.”
The movie crew allowed North Korean officials to review the script and film the story of “a supposedly ordinary 8-year-old girl in Pyongyang named Ri Zin Mi, as she prepares to join the upcoming pageantry for the birthday of Kim Jong Il, the late North Korean leader.”
However, as the shoot went on, the filmmakers chafed at the increasingly ham-fisted efforts of North Korean officials to micro-manage everything, down to instructing every background extra on what they should say, how they should behave, and what expressions they should be wearing. CNN describes the film crew amassing creepy totalitarian outtakes of government “handlers” doing everything short of shellacking the smiles onto peasant faces:
In one setup, an official tells factory workers to be more effusive about their work. “One more time. Why is your applause so weak?” he says. At a second factory, the handler feeds the workers lines about productivity and workplace satisfaction. “Say that joyfully,” he adds.
Even a highly decorated war veteran is not immune: a minder interrupts him and tells him to finish up his war stories, and segue to his scripted lines.
And for a scene where the young Zin Mi is tucked into bed, two handlers are seen arranging the shot, right down to the blankets.
Censors went through every day’s footage and deleted everything they did not like, unaware that the crew had decided to keep a duplicate memory card of their digital photography. The camerawoman had the extra card tucked in her trousers when she went to the bathroom. That took some guts, because North Korea has been known to toss foreigners in prison for far less.
The film, completed outside of North Korea’s control, ended up as an expose of the propaganda system, complete with a sarcastic title card that thanks Pyongyang for its help with the production:
The script of this film was assigned to us by the North Korean side. They also kindly provided us with a round-the-clock escort service, chose our filming locations, and looked over all the footage we shot, to make sure we did not make any mistakes in showing the life of a perfectly ordinary family in the best country in the world.
While critics of the Kim regime have hailed the film for revealing the highly choreographed, dystopian lives of North Koreans, the family depicted in Under the Sun has denounced the film, claiming they were tricked into appearing in a “selectively edited anti-North Korean movie.” The little girl’s mother blasted director Vitaly Mansky as a “black-minded person.”
Pyongyang did more than complain. They wrote to Moscow demanding a ban of the film, and at least one film festival curator — at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City — refused to screen the movie, fearing vengeful cyber-attacks like the assault on Sony Pictures after North Korea deemed its film The Interview insulting to their leader.
Variety gave Under the Sun a strong review, hailing it as “an awkwardly revealing act of subversion that is arresting however you take it: as propaganda deconstructed, failed or turned into a tragicomedy whose most stinging indictments lie mostly in what remains unseen.”
The Variety review reveals just how much fakery North Korea tried to foist on the filmmakers, as the outtakes reveal that the family doesn’t really live in the apartment used as a set for the movie, and the parents were “reassigned” to different professions than the jobs they actually hold.
Now that it is coming off the festival circuit and going into general release — everywhere except North Korea, of course — Under the Sun will give Western viewers an idea of just how pervasive totalitarian government becomes, how it seeks to dominate every square inch of its citizens’ mental real estate. The ongoing crime against humanity in the northern part of the Korean peninsula ranks among the worst ever perpetrated.