Cinema Signal:

Writing, Directing, and Producing Documentary Films and Videos

. "A State of Mind"

The state of culture and values that exist in North Korea today would seem, from this documentary, to be purely a matter of mass coordination and spectacle. The effect of near perfect synchronization by massive numbers of people - gymnasts, soldiers, etc. -- is exquisite and mind boggling, but the awe diminishes in the realization that the required training is a form of political self-preservation and a living extension of a dictator's narrow vision.

The problem is not that so many human beings devote so much of themselves to realizing mass perfection but that it's pretty much all they've got for a sense of pride. All that's left, it seems, is a difficult life and an inbred fear of what the U.S. might be planning to do to them. America is the boogie man -- as sure as there's a tooth fairy and someone like George Bush in the White House.

To us, on the other hand, the comparison to Kim Jong Il makes George Bush look like a statesman.

Producer-director-narrator Daniel Gordon sticks tightly to his chosen pre-teen subjects as they train and prepare for the Mass Games of North Korea. It can be presumed that a film about the spectacle is as good a view of North Korea as a crew is likely to get and only because it seems favorably propagandistic to the authorities. Still, there's much peripheral value in obtaining any exposure of a country that has been hermetically sealed for decades and, given that, it should attract attention from more than just western athletes and sports fans.

Anywhere in public, Gordon focuses on what the authorities want him to, but a safe haven for extensive interviewing is the family homes of the two subjects, 13-year old Pak Hyon Sun and 11-year old Kim Song Yun. We see that they've been bred as good little communists, North Korean style, absorbed in political ideology and a religious-like worship of their little dictator. To perform before him is a life-affirming privilege, even if you're one of thousands. To have him not show up for a show you've trained years for is cause for deep-down disappointment and melancholy, perhaps to the extent of clinical depression.

Kim Jong Il should probably be understood as all the movie stars and political heroes rolled into one man -- the only guy they see all the time - in their statuary, billboards, and wall hangings. You've heard of surround sound? This is surround Kim.

The charming naivete' of these dedicated young athletes could be entertaining if it were representing just one portion of a society's wide range of possibilities, and we can certainly admire and identify with their challenges in training. But when we consider that these are highly privileged children living in the apartments available only to parents with official status, in a city that, in itself, is a singular model of socialist showcasing, it feels more like a study of a nation's psychosis and its cult of the indistinguishable.

For all the problems a westerner sees in a country ruled by "our father, the general," physical fitness isn't one of them. Has any country ever stamped out so many perfect little gymnasts and dancers, or so much patriotic fervor?

If this film, which is overlong by half, were not a glorification of all that is dear to the dictatorial mindset, it's clear that no camera from the west would have been allowed near, let alone into, the borderlines. But that's all right, since a slanted view is better than none at all. The population that we see is primed to foreswear individuality as though they are nothing more than cells of the state-designed organism. And, whether that's confined to the selected elite or is a general coping mechanism, the personal pride in achieving the standards of group identification is, apparently, worth living for.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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The glory and worship of synchronization

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