In 2013, Vitaliy Manskiy began a long process of securing permission to make a documentary in and about North Korea. He had no more knowledge about the state of that country beyond what any of us take from the news, but he had a conception that it would be like traveling back in a “time machine” to 1930s, Stalinist Russia. What he found was Stalin on steroids; almost a caricature of the totalitarianism with which he was familiar.
When he arrived to make the film Under the Sun, he found that the North Koreans demanded 100% control over the script, filming, and process. Government agents managed every aspect of the production in order to create a story about a young girl joining the Korean Children’s Union (a concept, in fact, adopted from the Soviet Union). He was allowed to travel to North Korea only with the minimum of crew, himself, a cinematographer, and a sound engineer. In a risky decision, he decided to hire a sound engineer who had zero experience with sound but was fluent in Korean and Russian, providing him a means of listening to his Korean handlers surreptitiously.
He quickly grew frustrated with the utter lack of freedom and began filming additional footage when the agents believed the cameras were off. At the end of each day, he was required to submit his scenes to the censors, who would remove any objectionable material. Manskiy created two memory cards – one that he would turn over to the government and a second containing the secret recordings, which were subsequently smuggled out of the country.
Sensing friction on the sets, the North Korean government cut the filming short. Of three planned filming trips, only two took place.
Manskiy’s arrangement with the Koreans was to create a propaganda documentary celebrating the heroic eight-year-old’s membership in the Union. He created a 60 minute film, which was delivered to the Koreans. He also created a 106 minute version using the smuggled footage, which was shown everywhere else. When they got wind of the latter version, North Korea objected and asked the Russian government to prevent the project from being screened. While Russia did formally object, the film was shown at festivals and, for a few more days, is available on Netflix streaming.
This is a fascinating work, well worth the time to watch. The deviation from the official propaganda is slow and subtle at first. Slips from the handlers show cracks in the facade. For example, when agent tells the girl (while eating dinner in, presumably, her own apartment) to “act just like you do at home,” we see some of the government’s misdirection at work. Even without the secret footage, it will be immediately obvious that something is wrong with the Korea we see on film. We see the morning commute in downtown Pyongyang. Wide streets are deserted except for formations of “commuters” walking in perfect lines toward their employment. The film later explains, with on-screen text, that Manskiy believes workers are bunked at their workplaces, and therefore don’t leave at night or arrive in the morning. The same applies to students and their schools.
The documentary is beautiful, sad, and enlightening. Even when showing the propaganda fed to us by the State, we see that the truth can’t really be hidden.
The North Korea on screen shows nearly complete control of every detail down to the most personal. Of course, it is not a complete picture of the entire nation, but still one wonders how it is possible to so utterly crush the individuality out of an entire society. Manskiy himself said that if he had to choose between living in North Korea and the death penalty, he would choose death. And yet, millions soldier on under Kim Jong-un’s yoke, preferring life over the alternative.
The last scene of the film illustrates the utter lack of hope that a totalitarian society creates. The girl is having trouble with the filming and begins to cry. Adults implore her to think of something happy and she is unable to come up with anything at all. Finally, she recites a poem about Kim, celebrating his enlightened leadership of their country, and the recitation apparently puts her mind at ease.