Tricking the North Korean government into letting you shoot an unauthorized documentary in the communist country is punishable by decades in prison — or worse — but that’s exactly what Russian director Vitaly Mansky did for the 2015 film “Under the Sun.” Released by Icarus films, the movie had its North American theatrical premiere Wednesday at Film Forum in New York.
After two years of negotiations with North Korean authorities, Mansky received an invitation to document the life of an eight-year-old girl and her parents in the capital city of Pyongyang, only to learn upon arrival that every frame of his film would be scripted and controlled by state workers to create a piece of propaganda. “He realized that he didn’t have any freedom, that they wouldn’t let him go anywhere by himself, and that he couldn’t speak directly with any character,” Simone Baumann, one of the film’s producers, told IndieWire. “He had to change the concept.”
It was at this point that Mansky decided he would keep the camera rolling between shots, capturing how the North Korean state workers would stage scenes and change dialogue to better fit their nationalist narrative. Though the state employees monitoring the production deleted this footage from the camera’s memory card after each day of shooting, they were unaware of a second memory card backing up everything that was shot.
“The situation was really dangerous,” Baumann said, adding that she’d never shot under these conditions in more than 15 years of producing documentaries. “You have to have big balls to do it this way.” Baumann never traveled to North Korea herself, as the country only permitted Manksy, cinematographer Alexandra Ivanova, and a sound assistant to enter the country for the production. In another strategic but risky move, Mansky hired a Russian translator who was fluent in Korean but had no sound recording experience to act as the sound person for the movie. “He didn’t tell the North Koreans that she would understand everything they said,” Baumann said.
Just how dangerous was Mansky’s ploy to expose North Korea’s propagandist and censorship activities? In March, an American college student was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and prison for attempting to steal a political propaganda poster from a Pyongyang hotel. Baumann said that Mansky was extremely nervous throughout the shoot, which the North Koreans cut short by cancelling his third and final trip after becoming suspicious. “He was a little bit relieved not to go back, because he knew it was really dangerous,” she said.
“Under the Sun” is not the first documentary to execute a ploy against North Korea. In 2006, two comics born in Korea joined Danish comedian-filmmaker Mads Brügger on a trip to North Korea to put on a play for Korean citizens authorized by the government. The experience was made into a comedic documentary called “The Red Chapel” that poked fun at the country’s disturbingly repressive culture. Baumann said the group that oversaw production of “The Red Chapel” were the same state workers that supervised Mansky’s crew and stayed in their same hotel. “Every film team in North Korea is going to be accompanied by people like this,” Baumann said. “You can’t take a single step without being accompanied by them.”
HBO’s VICE also produced numerous segments in North Korea, including covering the country’s Arirang Mass Games in 2013. “Getting into North Korea was one of the hardest and weirdest processes VICE has ever dealt with,” co-founder Shane Smith wrote for a series called “Vice’s Guide to North Korea,” calling the experience a “freaky, freaky trip.”
Though “Under the Sun” opened in New York this week, the film was scheduled to play as a part of MoMA’s Doc Fortnight festival in February before it was disinvited by a programmer in a controversial decision that had to do with possible retaliation from North Korea, which has criticized the movie. If there’s one lesson for filmmakers interested in making future documentaries about the country, with our without government approval, it’s this: shoot at your own risk.