Eat the Document
With Daniel Gordon's made-for-BBC documentary A State of Mind, we get to something fully cooked, with fine cinematography, smooth editing, a comprehensive script and an authoritative-sounding voiceover. Not that you'll notice. Gordon's subject matter is so astonishing that you will simply stare in appalled fascination at the picture, another Film Forum premiere, which opens August 10 (and runs for one week only--hurry!).
The first foreign journalist granted permission to make a film in North Korea, Gordon chose to document preparations for the autumn 2003 Mass Games in the capital of Pyongyang. The word "games" is misleading, since these events (which began in 1946) are actually patriotic pageants featuring live music, enormous, ever-changing pictorial backdrops and elaborate gymnastic displays. The word "mass," though, is fully appropriate. As many as 100,000 people perform in the shows, which demand months of rigorous group practice. Beyond those 100,000 are the citizens who work up routines without being selected, or who train the performers, organize the events and help manage the audiences--which means that a large percentage of Pyongyang's 2 million residents devote themselves to mounting these spectacles. Although some 4 million people may see a Mass Game during its run, the show is always presented for the satisfaction of just one viewer--the "Dear General," Kim Jong Il--who may or may not honor the performers with his presence.
To reveal the effect of the Mass Games on daily life, Gordon spent several months filming two of the gymnasts: 13-year-old Pak Hyon Sun and 11-year-old Kim Song Yun. The girls, who are close friends, could scarcely contain their excitement at the possibility of being seen by the Dear General, or their fear that they might falter and disappoint him. Despite injuries and short rations (though not as short as those endured by other North Koreans), they practiced up to ten hours a day, perfecting the sort of exhausting, synchronized group routine that is the essence of the Mass Games. Think of it as a desexualized Busby Berkeley number, in which rows and rows of girls in unison give up their rapt smiles, their outflung limbs, their thrusting buttocks for the glory of thrice-great Kim: "great in ideology, great in leadership and great in aura."
And we think we have something called "the society of the spectacle"? We don't know what the term means.