January 9, 2013

North Korea: A Day in the Life - Not Real By a Long Shot

"A day in life" implies a certain level of realism that this documentary certainly doesn't attain. That's in part because, in order to shoot this documentary about North Korea, Dutch director Pieter Fleury had to get the sign-off of the North Korean government. As you can imagine, much of the footage has a staged quality as drill teams perform inspirational flag routines outside factories and the central family's grandfather passionately recounts the American bombings of a local school that resulted in the death of his father and brother. What the communist censors failed to foresee was that composer Maarten van Norden would create an anxiety-producing score that would lend fairly nondescript footage a sinister aspect and that editor Michiel Reichwein would work similar wonders by re-appropriating video from national broadcasts.

Both sides would've benefited from a little more honesty. No one is about to believe that a staff member is going to mortify his or her self at a staff meeting then have those self-incriminations be met with blank stares as if this were just a normal everyday occurrence. Similarly, a women's military choir doesn't really become Satanic simply because you slow down the frames per second until you freeze one singer's face in an expressionistic scream. The truth peeking out from behind both these pretend presentations is so much more interesting.

Count how many times you see representations of Kim Jong Il and/or Kim Il Sung, the "great leaders" of the nation. You'll see their portraits being dusted by the son in the family's living room, various murals of one or the other throughout the city, a towering gold statue that towers over a city square, and illustrated images being referenced as a teaching tool in an elementary school class. This doesn't include the patriotic songs or the rote invocations by family and workers. The two Kims' omnipresence says a lot more to me about life in North Korea than any stylistic imprint that Fleury has imposed. One scene in which each of the little children bow to portraits as they enter school is infinitely more bizarre than any sped-up footage of factory executives gathering for a meeting at which truth reigns supreme. Why impose Orwellian imprints where they already exist?

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