A North Korean State of Mind

screencap of "A State of Mind" (2004)

The documentary A State of Mind by British filmmaker Daniel Gordon is a rare glimpse into North Korean daily life. Gordon followed the lives of two North Korean schoolgirls, 13-year-old Pak Hyon Sun and 11-year-old Kim Song Yun, as they train for the Mass Games. North Korea's Mass Games are a spectacle of extravagant proportions: 100,000 people participate in elaborately choreographed, dazzlingly colorful, jaw-dropping gymnastic displays, after months of daily, grueling rehearsals. It’s all for the delectation of Kim Jong Il, often referred to as “Dear Leader Kim” or “Dear General.” Whether the reclusive dictator will deign to show up on the day of the performance is a matter of constant speculation.

Following on from the 2002 RTS award-winning documentary The Game of Their Lives, Gordon's new film paints a candid portrait of these two young girls' difficult (though by North Korean standards, very privileged) lives in this fascinating look at one of the world’s most hidden societies. Asia Society spoke with Daniel Gordon about the making of the documentary and his observations while in North Korea.

You were able to get unrestricted access to daily life in Pyongyang. Did the fact that you had already filmed The Game of Their Lives help you convince North Korean film authorities to grant you permission to do A State of Mind?

Absolutely. You really cannot underestimate what an impact The Game of Their Lives has had on people in North Korea. It has been broadcast over ten times on TV so everyone has seen it, everyone knows who we are and that it’s a popular film. We get very good treatment by almost everyone we meet, whether they are ordinary citizens on the streets or people in an official capacity.

Did you have a translator or guide with you the whole time?

As we say in the film, we had guides and translators with us at all times but they neither interfered nor sought to censor the material. They were there to assist us but they had no editorial input or influence.

Were you required to show them the final version of the film before releasing it to the public?

People find it hard to believe but the North Koreans had no editorial control. The first time they saw the finished version was after its first broadcast on the BBC. In essence, they trusted us to make an impartial film.

Do you find that the world of sports seems less threatening to North Korea as a subject matter for films? What attracts you to doing sports stories?

I am a sports fanatic and sports themes can tell great human stories, and remain neutral, even when the subject matter may be quite political. What fascinated me about the football team was how they emerged from a nation absolutely devastated by the Korean War to be at the World Cup just 13 years later. For A State of Mind I wanted to use the theme of daily life in Pyongyang through the eyes of these two schoolgirl gymnasts.

How did you find the two schoolgirls Kim Song Yun and Pal Hyon Sun?

We asked them for the best gymnast and met Pak Hyon Sun and her family in September 2002. Our intention was to have two gymnasts and one person who makes up the stunning backdrop. Having found Pak Hyon Sun we began filming in February 2003. She told us of her friend, Kim Song Yon and we got a feeling that we could develop their friendship as a theme. Pak is an only child, and loves going to Kim’s house, as there are three girls there. Kim learns gymnastic moves from Pak, so their relationship is mutually dependent. By April 2003, we understood that the Mass Games were going to be held indoors so there would be no backdrop so we just concentrated on the two girls.

Your film captures the very vivid and disturbing devotion that these children and adults have for their leader, Kim Jong Il. Did you get any sense from the people you met that there might be fear of punishment if they said anything on camera against the government?

No, one of the surprising and encouraging things was how open they were with us. No one looked at our footage or tried to edit it before we left the country.

In the film you see that there are still distinct classes in North Korean society, but they are all considered equal. In the film the intellectual class and the worker class don’t seem to live much differently from each other. Did you see any differences in their lives?

No, I think like our lives each family approached life very differently, but their lives seemed to be pretty much the same – how they chose to spend their money was different of course.

It is striking how much animosity North Koreans expressed for the United States. The media, the memories of the Korean War, as well as the current relationship with the US seem to keep that momentum going. But one woman in the film spoke about how it was almost tiring to continually hate the United States and keep that enemy constantly present in their lives. Do you feel these hostile sentiments and blame toward the US have become emptier the more it’s expected of everyone to feel this way or did you find the opposite, that they just keep perpetuating the same anger?

Just before we went in February 2003, Donald Rumsfeld said America could fight a war on two fronts, which clearly meant Iraq and North Korea. In this way, all North Koreans could legitimately be told by their government “Look, we told you, they are still planning to invade us.” They are very clear about Bush labelling them evil. It’s hard to think how this mutual animosity can stop.

very tragic aspect of the story of these two girls is revealed in the film when Kim Jong Il does not make it to their performance. The girls show disappointment and yet there is still a quiet understanding that their leader is busy helping their country. Do you feel that this will eventually wear on these kids’ devotion?

No, and I think the fact that since we finished filming two years ago they have practised every day for two hours in readiness for this coming Mass Games (August-October 2005, though they never knew the date) bears this out.

It is revealed in the film that even during the hardest years of the famine in the ‘90s, which even affected Pyongyang, North Koreans still tolerated the struggle for the preservation of “juche” or self-reliance. There were so many predictions at the time that the fall of North Korea was imminent, but it never happened. After your current experience in North Korea, what is your sense of prospects for North-South reunification?

One of the saddest things about making these two films is to understand how devastating the divide is to all Korean people regardless of background or beliefs. The prospects looked brighter five years ago when we embarked on The Game of Their Lives but now seem more remote than ever.

Do you plan in the future to do more films in North Korea?

We are currently in post production of our third film in North Korea, about four US Servicemen who defected to the DPRK in the 1960s. Crossing The Line will be finished in early 2006.

Interview conducted by Cindy Yoon of The Asia Society.