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How to Make a Documentary in North Korea Without Being Hassled

By Andrei Sendrea | Indiewire August 21, 2014 at 10:00AM

Soon-Mi Yoo's feature debut, "Songs from the North," which aims to shed some light on the people of North Korea, was awarded the award for Best First Feature at the recent Locarno International Film Festival. Her very personal documentary essay stands out even in a festival as diverse and open to experiments such as Locarno. Indiewire spoke to the director in Locarno about the challenges of making a film about North Korea.
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Songs From the North 2

In Soon-Mi Yoo's film, archival images taken from North Korean fiction and documentary films, theater performances and party meetings are intertwined with live footage shot on location by the director during her three visits there, and glued together with her diary notes, questions and feelings about the North from the standpoint of a South Korean-born woman living in the United States. 

"They do try to control your activity and limit what you shoot or don't shoot." - Soon-Mi Yoo

You've been to North Korea three times. Did you have the idea for the film before you went there or did your visits inspire you?

I'm different from the journalists in the sense that, they need to get something, they have a ready story, they go out and look for it, and then they come back and just put together what, I'm assuming, they already had in mind. Whereas I'm interested in discovery. It's also kind of a poetic process, where the piece itself finds its own core. I didn't know how the piece was going to come together at the beginning, but I also knew what I didn't want to do.

What didn't you want to do?

I've looked at a lot of the documentaries about North Korea and it's kind of upsetting to watch them. I found them to be very one-sided, and they didn't actually reveal anything about North Korea beyond what we already knew: it's a terrible place, people are under this terrible tight grip of the regime, and they are poor and brainwashed and so forth. The tone of these documentaries is almost racist, looking down on them and making fun of them. They're basically presenting the freaks, 'look at these people', and they are incredulous that they are like that. And, maybe because I grew up in Korea, I had a gut feeling that it can't be all that.

"Songs from the North"
"Songs from the North"

How is North Korea represented in South Korea?

Terribly. The propaganda is intense on both sides...Growing up, North Korea under the communists was vilified. We heard terrible stories, kind of like the paintings you see in the film with the atrocities of the American regime. Each side has an image of the other like that. Both South Koreans and North Koreans are pictured literally with horns.

How hard is it for a filmmaker to get to North Korea, especially a South Korean filmmaker?

It is hard. They don't like Korean Americans. South Koreans have a special permission from the government, but that's different, because they are diplomats or high level officials. In limited capacity, they come in as some sort of representative. People like Korean-Americans, who speak English, lived in the States or who understand Korean, they find it difficult to deal with them. I was afraid they wouldn't give me the visa and I've heard from Korean-Americans that this has happened. They bought the tickets and everything was paid for and they went to China, because they don't give you a visa until you actually go to China and show up at the North Korean embassy.

You were a one-woman film crew. Watching the film, you don't get the feeling that you were given a hard time. How much freedom were you allowed when you decided to film something or someone?

It was a constant, sort of, haggling, like a mild threat. They would say something like 'Maybe you want to stay here longer, like three months, and photograph more of our beautiful country. But then your students might say that you were detained'. When you arrive in North Korea, you can't just take a cab or bus. There is always someone that is coming to meet you. They take you around. They're in charge of you for the whole duration of your trip and your itinerary is more or less determined prior to your trip. And the driver and the guys will report on your activities in separate ways. They are the ones who are able to interact with foreigners. They are the most loyal to the regime. They have to be, because they are susceptible to others. They watch South Korean television dramas in the tour bus if you show it to them. They are not stupid. They've been to China, some of them. And they are obviously connected to a kind of security or intelligence apparatus. But they are generally very nice, they're not threatening in any way. North Koreans, in general, are very friendly and very kind and modest people. 

"I didn't know what to expect, what's going to happen to me when I try to shoot this." - Soon-Mi Yoo

There is a scene towards the end when you take a picture with the children. These children's groups seem to show up everywhere. You say your itinerary was determined. Was everyone you met somebody the officials wanted you to meet?

They do try to control your activity and limit what you shoot or don't shoot. In my opinion, throughout my trips, the two genuine moments of interaction that you see in the film are the ones that actually happened: the man who hums the song in the beginning, and at the end, the children. Ordinary North Koreans are not allowed to interact with foreigners and they can get into trouble. In Pyongyang, they loosened that rule a little bit, I heard, but back then it was still a problem. On the street they exist. Buses or taxis come, and you have to walk to the site where they want to show you the Kim Il-Sung statue or whatever, but other people are there. I was interested in shooting these people. I knew before I went that was my only chance of catching their mundane, everyday life, the way they exist in their society. They try to control that. It is kind of a game where they're like 'don't shoot, please don't shoot'. When they asked me, I stopped. They're trying to do their jobs, not get into trouble themselves, and it's not right for me to insist and fight with them. But five minutes later, I see something else, a kid goes by, and I get to shoot for thirty seconds, or a minute, or however long they allow me to do it. And then they come around to stop me, usually they would say 'let's go, you can't be here'.

READ MORE: Review of North Korean Diary Film "Songs From the North"

How much footage did you have?

I had a lot. As you saw in the film, I tried to shoot whenever I could. I'm a filmmaker, that's what I do. It was easier in my third visit, because I was with an academic group. In a way they were more open for tourist taking pictures. Before, they where constantly asking me why I was taking pictures. There were more of us and everybody wanted to take pictures. They couldn't control everybody.

Did they check the footage and did they find anything they wanted erased?

They do check and sometimes they take away your camera and delete the material. It didn't happen to me because I wanted to go back to North Korea and photograph more. When they explicitly said 'don't shoot here' I didn't try. Now I finished my project, but while I was traveling I told myself I had to be smart. In that, I didn't want to deceive them, to tell them 'I'm going to make your country look great'. Because journalists do that, wearing the North Korean suit and acting like they really believe them. They're mocking them, actually. As a documentary filmmaker, I don't understand that. They don't really know how they are looked at from outside. When foreign journalists come to North Korea, they do their best to be hospitable, be nice to them, provide opportunities for them to see what's great about their country. And then the journalists go back and make these documentaries where they make them look bad. They talked to me about these people. They are very hurt about these things.

"I was trying to shoot but I got constantly hassled." - Soon-Mi Yoo

Do you feel you have a responsibility for these people?

I do. I went there to understand. The difference between South Korea and North Korea is enormous. How did this happen in sixty some years? I saw the footage of people wailing on television after the leader died, crying in this hysterical outburst. That's as strange to me as it is to you. Some of them might be faking it. There is no way of knowing for sure because you cannot ask them 'are you faking?'. And when journalists ask them this, they are really offended. But I found in my encounters that this emotion is genuine. They genuinely revered Kim Il-Sung and felt they're really under a great threat from the United States and wouldn't survive without Kim Il-sung's protection.

You use a lot of archival footage and it is structured in a very specific way. How much of this structure was settled when you first got there, and how much did live footage influence the use of archival footage?

It's a back and forth process. Initially, I didn't think I would use as much archive or found footage as I ended up using. By the third trip I realized that I couldn't get to the deep psychology of these people. My encounters were just too fleeting. It was dangerous for them to have the kind of conversation that all documentary filmmakers hope to have. And I didn't ask them these stupid questions that journalists tend to ask, trying to get some dirt from them, like 'How do you really feel?'. That's when I started to look to the material that is coming out of North Korea, even though it's propaganda. Fiction, non-fiction there is no difference, it's the same imagery. Their so-called documentary and so-called drama, are the same, both real and unreal. Bazin said all films are documentaries, in a sense that they all happened in front of the camera, in reality. But at the same time, the regime is using this art, the paintings that are all over the country and so forth, as a mirror, a screen for people to emulate, to be a better person. You should be heroes, sacrifice yourself and love your country beyond yourself. If you only think about yourself, that's selfish, and that has no meaning. Your value comes from being able to sacrifice yourself for other people: the community, the country, the leaders. The emphasis they put on the arts is extreme in this sense.

This is a very personal essay, you are very present in the film through the ideas and questions that work as intertitles, also with  your voice, but you don't appear on camera. Is there a specific reason or any kind of concept behind this?

It's a poetic process, creating the poetic 'I'. The 'I' that exists in this film is me obviously, but I didn't think it was necessary to be on camera. And I'm shooting myself, so it's difficult to be behind the camera and in front of it at the same time. Initially, I was going to have a narration, as I've done in my previous work. I tried that for a long a time, both in Korean and in English. But it just didn't seem right, my voice came across considered or forced. Then I tried using text. Some of the text came to me in it's entirety while I was traveling, or right after I got back. Sort of like a diary. I felt I needed a bit of distance and text is slightly distancing. So I used text instead of putting myself out there, 'This is me, I'm shooting, I'm talking', it would have been too much of me.

Did you have any kind of aesthetic preoccupation? For instance, in the beginning of the film, a performer falls during an acrobatic show, and this is textbook example on how to engage the audience, create expectations etc. The same goes for the amusement park scene, where the shot is static for a long while and suddenly, the camera rushes down and you hear all the screaming in the background.

Not really, just what I could achieve through editing. Also, I really tried to stay true to my experience, and my memory, and the feelings I had when I was in the country. Time filters and distorts your memory. The structure of the film also reflects my experience: fragmented, sometimes disjointed, the sound sometimes just drops and all of a sudden there is this silence and a very kind of shocking feeling, as if you yourself are falling. That's the way my North Korean experience was.

I didn't know what to expect, what's going to happen to me when I try to shoot this and that. It's not a constant visible threat, but the aura is there. The first shot you mentioned, that was from a performance of Arirang. A hundred thousand people in a stadium shouting, it's an unbelievable spectacle. It's the best and possibly the worst spectacle you'll ever see. Because it's so good, so perfect, that it makes you freak out. Because human beings can't do that, can't all of them line up like that and do all those things. It's impossible but they're doing it. It really overwhelms you. I was trying to shoot but I got constantly hassled. I had brought a zoom lens, and as soon as I start to shoot, the person in charge of me turns to me and says the people up there are telling him to stop the woman in the black t-shirt with the zoom lens. As for the amusement park scene, the guy in charge of me dared me to go up there. I am afraid of these machines but I couldn't say no. But then, it took me a long time to figure out how to use that footage.

"Songs From the North."
"Songs From the North."

Did you do any post-production for sound or image in order to try to make the footage look and sound better?

I did color correct for DCP. I didn't do much about the VHS found footage, because it's very delicate and it looks bad anyway. I tried various ways of upgrading it to high-definition in order to match the high-definition of other footage. The result was high-definition but interlaced, all these lines going up and down.

The image going up and down like that, it might be interpreted as a critique of the regime. Was that something you had in mind or just a by-product of trying to match different video technologies?

That's the way I found it. The analogue tapes were old and used, a lot of speed problems and frame rate issues. In the end, I decided to keep it the way I found it, trying to stay true to the way I experienced it. And I kind of liked that the Great Leader is sort of unstable, like a ghost.

Do you think somewhere in Pyongyang, somebody might think that making this film was a politically motivated decision?

Yes, that is a big possibility. The first thing they tell you as soon as you go through North Korean customs is that their newspapers have the leader's picture, and you're not supposed to sit on the newspaper. They think of these gestures as highly disrespectful. It's a crime and it's punishable. At the end, when I'm with the kids, I didn't actually look at what I was shooting. You can see all these weird shots, and you can see that their leader's head is cut off in the background. I'm sure they won't like it, what can I do? I just heard the South Korean government may not allow my film to be shown in South Korea. So, both Koreas don't like my film, apparently. It's not that bad. Chris Marker went to Korea after the war and  published an image and text book, Korean Women, in 1959. It was the first time I saw an image of North Korea that wasn't evil. That was a huge inspiration for me. But his book was condemned from both sides also. South Koreans thought he was too sympathetic to the North and called him communist dog. And North Koreans didn't like it because he never mentioned Kim Il-Sung. Both Koreas hate his book, and I guess I may be facing a similar fate.


This article is part of a series written by members of the 2014 Locarno Critics Academy, organized by Indiewire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Locarno Film Festival.

This article is related to: Critics Academy, Locarno Critics Academy, Locarno 2014, Locarno Film Festival, Songs From the North, Festivals, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries, Soon-mi Yoo





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