DOK Leipzig 2015/ 8/ Vitaly Mansky in North Korea

Vitaly Mansky has been in North Korea. If I understand it correctly called in as a professional helper of a local film team that is to make a propaganda film for the regime. He helps, I guess, but he also makes his own film, ”Under the Sun”, that was shown at DOK Leipzig and praised there by several of my professional colleagues as well as by representatives of the local funder, MDR. It is beautifully shot, has amazing sequences of modern civilation, human beings in the streets fighting their way to work, on rolling stairs in the metro, with empty faces and hopelessness in their sad eyes. Images that could have been taken anywhere – for a Dane it brings back memories of our late graphic art master Palle Nielsen and his descriptions of modern urban life: No hope. Despair.

Mansky deserves credit for that. My doubts come when he wants to make a personalised story out of his shooting in North Korea. I could not help feel scepticism while watching, and it changed to irritation over the kliché language that he uses, to say what he wants to say. Yes, what does he want to say? That North Korea cultivates a culture of total adoration for the great leaders, that this indoctrination and brainwashing take place from early childhood, that huge parades are organised, that the people suffer? One thing is that we already knew that, we have seen it many times before, another is that Mansky builds a story through small observations that he has made: In the school class some students moves their hands nervously, a student is on the edge of falling asleep while a military veteran makes his speech, the main protagonist, the girl in the family that plays in the propaganda film, has tears in her eyes while training the dance, so on so forth. The director apparently wants us to suffer with her, when he cuts from her face in the window of the dull appartment building to the parade on the big square, and back again, and back again; to be interpreted as ”this is her future”. Not difficult to understand!

Mansky wants us to see the means of suppression of a country’s population. He assists at the shooting of a propaganda film and that is in itself interesting and illustrative. You see the North Korean director(s) go in and out of the picture to direct the family members, who have been chosen to be the perfect patriots, who in all contexts celebrate Kim Il-Sung and the son, who has followed him on the throne. These scenes are fine, so why do we need Mansky’s squeezing tiny details out from the material shot to prove what is obvious through the whole propaganda circus that is set up? Could it not have been enough – and honest – to communicate that we are invited to follow the making of a propaganda film for North Korea. Mansky insists on making the little girl a tragic character – look she is crying when she dances, look she cries when she can not remember some propaganda lines… Sorry, I do not trust the autenthicity of that. And does Mansky really care about her?

Sorry for being so long about this film. Ethical questions are not often raised around films, in this case also not in Leipzig. Schade, as they say in German!

Russia, Germany, Czech Republic, North Korea, Under the Sun, 2015, 110 mins. 

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Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

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