Another controversial movie is taking aim at North Korea. Less than a year after Sony temporarily cancelled the release of the James Franco and Seth Rogen action comedy “The Interview,” due to threat from hackers allegedly representing the communist country, a documentary called “Under the Sun” is making waves on the festival circuit in Europe for its own amusing take on the land of Kim Jong-un. Unsurprisingly, it has yet to be picked up for American distribution, and it likely never will be.
“Under the Sun” is the latest feature by Russian-Ukrainian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky (“Pipeline”), who isn’t very familiar to U.S. audiences anyway. It world premiered in Germany earlier this month at Dok Leipzig before heading to the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival in Czech Republic, where it won a juried prize for being the best film out of Central or Eastern Europe. This month, it is scheduled to play at the Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia and the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). From there, it’s doubtful that it will find its way across the Atlantic even for festival screenings.
Unlike “The Interview,” “Under the Sun” is a serious work of nonfiction, although much of it is just as staged as the scripted satire. Mansky was officially permitted to film for a year in Pyongyang with the intent of capturing, in non-interfering Wiseman-esque fashion, the life of an average family as their young daughter — eight-year-old Zin-me — prepares to join the Young Pioneer Corps of the Korean Children’s Union. Of course, the state had to approve all footage shot for the project and even wound up dictating and manipulating how the film would depict this “common” story. The professions of the girl’s parents were changed, and even the simplest of moments took many takes to get just right.
Mansky shares all the artifice with his audience by including the multiple takes of a classroom lesson and a family dinner, among other sequences, as well as the behind-the-scenes outtakes showing the main subjects and extras being directed. He also provides titles explaining the truth about what we’re seeing, such as when we watch Zin-me’s father working as an engineer at a clothing factory but are told he’s actually a journalist. Mansky was able to pull this all off by recording everything he shot on two memory cards and only handing one of them over to the censors each evening. While his minders would delete anything they didn’t want to get out, they had no idea the filmmaker had backups.
The basic idea of “Under the Sun” calls to mind Mads Brugger’s 2009 documentary “The Red Chapel,” in which the Danish director and two comedians posing as a vaudeville act are welcomed to North Korea for a cultural exchange. They only managed to leave with footage the state approved of, but through added narration and some fortune in the lack of total comprehension by their censors, Brugger was able to construct a comedic takedown of not just the government but also the society subservient to it. It’s very much a one-sided attack, mainly achieved in post-production.
Mansky’s documentary, on the other hand, is fairly straightforward in the observational material he’s captured in the frame, ahead of any editing he’s done. That makes the film as tragic as it is funny. It’s acceptable to laugh at the absurdity of some of the staged situations, but a lot is also disturbing and sad, such as the evident embarrassment of factory workers not getting a scene quite right, and particularly in one significant instance when Zin-me starts to cry on camera. Audience members in Leipzig even expressed concern for her safety, in the chance that officials in North Korea manage to see or at least hear of what made it into the resulting film.
A heated back and forth between viewers and producer Natalya Manskaya (who stayed behind for the second screening while Mansky went to Jihlava) raised questions of responsibility — similar to what was seen at SXSW Film Festival screenings a few years ago with Caveh Zahedi’s “The Sheik and I,” a film commissioned by and made in the Emirate of Sharjah for its biennial celebration and then disowned and banned by that government for being too insolent. Zahedi was accused by viewers in the West of putting many of his local collaborators in the Middle East in danger, and because of that it was also boycotted by a number of North American festivals.
Whether or not “The Sheik and I” and its makers actually showed disregard for those collaborators’ lives, “Under the Sun” doesn’t even come close to the possibility of such controversy because everyone on camera and off did precisely as they were supposed to, by the law of their land. They didn’t willingly participate in or support Mansky’s scheme in any way. Not that it’s certain North Korea is so forgiving, but the film’s chances of playing in the U.S. are probably more slim because of potential concern for hacker threats than worry for the sake of its subjects.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the issue, you have to wonder if this documentary will make North Korea finally think twice about letting outsiders into the country for any sort of film project, as a number of the results have been rather counterproductively unfavorable. And there’s variety in the subversion, from the farcically satirical “The Red Chapel” to Soon-Mi Yoo’s seriously meditative 2014 documentary “Songs From the North,” and something in between, like “Under the Sun,” which it’s unlikely Mansky means to be as hilarious as audiences are finding it to be. So, it’s not easy to tell where such sneak attacks will come from.
Or maybe North Korean officials can find an appreciation in a film like “Under the Sun” being viewed in the context of a documentary festival, where its propagandistic manipulations and its showcasing of oppressive lack of freedom and individuality don’t stand out so harshly in the midst of films on wars, genocides and other human suffering and atrocity around the globe (compare it to the Indonesia of Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence,” films that have had to protect their collaborators through anonymity). Living in a communist dictatorship like North Korea may be awful, but even with Mansky’s table-turning tactics it doesn’t come off that way in his film.
The North Koreans would especially like the way it fell alongside a focus on South Korean documentary at this year’s Dok Leipzig and could be seen back-to-back with a film like Wooyoung Choi and Steven Dhoedt’s “Reach for the Sky” — which portrays the intense pressure of young Koreans to go to one of the top three schools in the country and secure their desired social status. The film presents that challenge as a far worse systemic issue than the conformity forced upon Zin-me in “Under the Sun.” Still, at least in the South Korean film, the subjects don’t have to worry about crying on screen.