Monday, February 6, 2012

A State of Mind - Daniel Gordon

I put A State of Mind in my list a couple of months ago, but was not able to watch it until today. The movie follows two preteen girls preparing to participate for the Mass Games, a gymnastics performance held in honor of Kim Jong Il. Daniel Gordon had unprecedented access to the daily life of two North Koreans families (both of which belong to the country's elite), so the movie was widely discussed in the West after its release. CNN even presented an abridged version of it. This movie was the first glimpse that the West had of North Korea since the end of the war, at the moment when the Kim regime was about to finalize its first nuclear weapon.

A State of Mind is remarkably neutral, the only criticism of North Korea coming at the end of the movie, when a subtitle informs that Kim did not attend the Games, and we get to see a bored group of high-level military staff seeing the performances (one of them is actually looking at his watch constantly). Having said that, the movie won two prices in North Korea's International Film Festival, which means either that what I have described as "criticism" is subconscious Western North Korea bashing, or that the censors didn't get the message.

Sadly, its neutrality makes A State of Mind a dated movie. North Korea has constantly been in the news for the last 8 years, the number of defectors is increasing, so the novelty is fading away. As usual, over the last 8 years, some people have condemned the abuses of the Kim dynasty, while others praised their resistance to capitalism, the US, and all that. There was room for neutrality 8 years ago, when North Korea was the big thing in the news, but not anymore.  The funerals of Kim Jong Il were useful, if nothing else, to allow Westerners to reinforce their preconceptions about North Korea. Most people confirmed that the North Korean government is composed of lunatics; others, like Mexico's Labor Party, saw in it the opportunity to praise an anti-imperialist leader who fought for the welfare of his country.

I've seen a number of posts criticizing Gordon for not presenting the harsh of the North Korea regime and not being upfront about its violations to human rights. By being neutral, the argument goes, Gordon is actually an accomplice of the North Korean dictatorship. Gordon had an unprecedented opportunity to ask real North Koreans what they think about their beloved leader and he wasted it, either unintentionally or because he's a double agent. I think this opens an interesting debate.

For some reason, Gordon gained the confidence of the North Korean government. The fact that he was allowed to talk to people is, in itself, a testimony of that. Gordon could have pushed the interviewees to talk about politics, with two different and exclusive results: 1) the interviewees decide to stop participating in the movie; or, 2) the interviewees decide to talk about politics, which means that they would probably be dead or in a reeducation camp by now. Scenario 1) leaves us with no movie, and scenario 2) would destroy even more lives just to confirm what we already know.

No matter how you cut it, the approach followed by Gordon (i.e., letting North Koreans express themselves freely about whatever they want) is the best one. Hearing two children referring sincerely to Kim Jong Il as a demi-god is enlightening enough.

A State of Mind is available for free here, via youtube.

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