In this age of global communication, we think of the world as getting smaller, but then a documentary like the BBC’s A State of Mind (distributed theatrically in the US by Kino International) comes along and offers a glimpse into one of the most industrialized but closed societies on earth, and it’s like discovering life on another planet. North Korea, whose war with South Korea has remained in a cease fire for the last half century, is a totalitarian state that bans international mail, travel, and cell phones, offers one official television and radio station, and only admits a trickle of guided tourists, provided they don’t have cameras. It had one venerated president from 1945 to his death in 1994 and he’s now considered their eternal leader; his son runs the government in his absence.
When I lived in South Korea for a summer in the ’90s, we spent a morning at the famously-misnamed Demilitarized Zone and gazed out tiny windows across a no man’s land of evacuated bunkers at North Korean soldiers staring back at us. Both countries broadcasted propaganda from loudspeakers, and the chill morning air encapsulated the sober mood.
But despite the country’s hardships–including a rigid class system, famines, and one of the worst human rights records in the world–North Korea has produced a thriving and unique culture rarely glimpsed by the West. One of its ongoing projects is Mass Games, described as the largest human spectacle on earth, which occurs sporadically every few years. An expression of the personality cult of North Korea’s leaders, the national Juche Idea (“self-reliance”), and collectivism, Mass Games are radically choreographed celebrations involving up to 100,000 acrobatic dancers who leap and twirl in perfect unison, separate by the hundreds into geometric designs and vast swathes of color, and recombine with all the precision of a kaleidoscope. Young gymnasts train a minimum of two hours per day for months at a time and compete intensely for the honor of performing.
Having charmed the North Korean authorities with his politically neutral 2002 documentary about their 1966 World Cup victory, British filmmaker Daniel Gordon was not only allowed to return to the country and film the Mass Games, but also record the daily lives of two schoolgirls training for the event. Thus, he became the first Western filmmaker officially endorsed by the North Korean government. And although A State of Mind plays by the rules (Gordon was limited to the elitist and relatively pampered culture living in Pyongyang), it’s hardly a propaganda piece, offering candid interviews, footage of power outages, and narration that highlights many of the country’s problems.
Mostly, though, it’s a celebration of the skill, determination, and spirit of the two girls and their supportive families, culminating in the Mass Games themselves. One would ordinarily be hard pressed to find anyone less interested in public spectacles than myself, yet I was absolutely transfixed by the film’s energetic montages, which can only be visually described as resembling Busby Berkely routines remade by George Lucas and his army of animators using tens of thousands of computer-generated models. (The backdrop to these performances alone is a gargantuan mosaic comprised of thousands of schoolchildren flipping colored cards.)
Yet the film is also admirably intimate, giving a human face to those living in a totalitarian society; their fears, joys, inspirations, and hopes.