Outside Looking In: Watching North Korea

The international community was rocked this week by the passing of North Korean leader Kim-Jong-il. Like the country he ruled for the last fourteen years, Kim-Jong-il was a bit of a mystery to most Westerners who were not privy to the inner-workings of his secretive regime. Despite North Korea’s fierce determination to stay closed-off from most of the rest of the world, several documentarians have managed to gain unprecedented (but tightly controlled) access to the country and some of its citizens. Fandor highlights four excellent documentaries that provide a peek at life in the communist country below. Each of these documentaries illustrate how fascinating and complex human stories are often the key to making compelling movies that resonate deeply with an audience.

Crossing the Line (2006) Dir. Daniel Gordon

Synopsis: Taking full advantage of access granted by the government of North Korea, director Daniel Gordon combines historical footage with contemporary interviews to shed light on the Kim Jong-il regime. This documentary tells the story of four members of the US army who defected in order to start a new life in communist North Korea, including Private First Class James Joseph Dresnok who crossed the border between North and South Korea in 1962, never to return.

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Praise for Crossing the Line:

“[The] compelling story and the plentiful high-definition video images of North Korean daily life prove so fascinating that Crossing the Line is riveting.” – Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Times

“Dresnok comes across as honest and credible, and his story is absolutely fascinating.” – Elizabeth Kerr, The Hollywood Reporter

A State of Mind
(2004) Dir. Daniel Gordon

Synopsis: A State of Mind follows two young gymnasts, 13 year old Pak Hyon Sun and 11 year old Kim Song Yun, and their families for eight months leading up to North Korea’s annual Mass Games – the largest and most elaborate human performance on earth. Providing a rare glimpse into what is one of the world’s least known societies, this film also shows what life is like for youth coming of age under a communist regime.

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Praise for A State of Mind:

“It’s a quietly wrenching eye-opener.” – Ty Burr, Boston Globe

“Admirably non-judgmental docu about life in ‘the least visited, known, understood country in the world,’ per Brit director Daniel Gordon, brings a refreshing balance to the usual blind vilification of the country.” – Derek Elley, Variety

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Kimjongilia (2009) Dir. N.C. Heikin

Synopsis: For North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s 46th birthday, a hybrid begonia named kimjongilia was created, symbolizing wisdom, love, justice, and peace. This film draws its name from this bright red flower and reveals the extraordinary stories told by survivors of North Korea’s vast prison camps, of deadly famine, and of every kind of repression. Along with the survivors’ stories, Kimjongilia examines the mass illusion possible under totalitarianism and the human rights abuses required to maintain that illusion.

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Praise for Kimjongilia:

“A horrifying-fascinating peek into a “hermit kingdom” that’s a bigger mystery than life on other planets.” – Nicolas Rapold, Time Out New York

“Lately outsiders are more likely to laugh at North Korea’s despotic head than to think about those who suffer under him, and Kimjongilia is a welcome and necessary antidote to that impulse.” – Jesse Singal, Boston Globe

The Juche Idea
(2008) Dir. Jim Finn

Synopsis: The Juche Idea is an uproarious and provocative deconstruction of North Korean propaganda and philosophy. Translated as “self-reliance,” Juche (CHOO-chay) is a hybrid of Confucian and Stalinist thought that Kim Jong-il adapted from his father and applied to the entire culture. In this documentary, a sympathetic South Korean filmmaker visits a North Korean artists’ colony to bring Juche ideas into the 21st century. The Juche Idea is a sardonic satire that reveals the absurdity at the heart of Kim-Jong-il’s regime.

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Praise for The Juche Idea:

“Jim Finn has managed to spoof not just easy-target Kim, but also the very notion of artists in residence making ever more obscure, inaccessible, and pretentious work.” – Lauren Wissot, Slant Magazine

“Densely constructed and pretty damn brilliant.” – Mark Kelzer, Boxoffice Magazine

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