Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Cinematically Inclined: “Kimjongilia”

I couldn’t believe what I had heard. Apparently, at the 2010 Winter Olympics in my hometown, everyone in the athletes’ village had a wonderful time socializing, learning one another’s cultures, practicing speaking foreign languages, becoming intimate (hey, this was an enclosed gathering of super-fit and beautiful young people, what did you expect?) and making new friendships. What I heard, however, was that the sole and exclusive exception to this rule was the North Korean team. They were only allowed out of a special confined area of the village to practice, compete and eat. God forbid they should try to sightsee or even speak to another competitor. Apparently this practice was taken to preserve the integrity of the North Korean cultural experience, but I suspected that this was done so that no one could tell the team that their leader was a contemptible human being to the world at large. I thought about this anecdote while watching Kimjongilia, and wondering if those athletes and the population in that country wonder just how insular they really are.

The writer-director of Kimjongilia is N.C. Heikin, a thoughtful, eloquent woman who also runs a blog dedicated to exposing the ills of North Korea. She has been able to secure the confidence of numerous North Korean refugees, freedom fighters and escapees who successfully fled the closed country to share the horrors of daily life and prison camps. If you thought the gulags in Soviet Russia were a thing of the past, you’d be sadly mistaken to find that they are plentiful and active in North Korea, even at this moment. Perhaps most fascinating about the propaganda claiming that no such thing exists is that there are actual recent pictures of these places on Google Maps.

Although this is a film named after the flower created for the now-dead Dear Leader, the film itself doesn’t attempt to explore the cult of personality around him. It already assumes that the viewer is well-aware that his egomania, coupled with unrestrained power, has made him into one of the last supreme-overlord-type megalomaniacs on this earth (I often wondered why he never had a guy’s night out with Robert Mugabe). This is a man whose image has been plastered throughout the country as a symbol of reverence and akin to an non-Christian deity floating freely on earth. There are actual people who sincerely believe Kim doesn’t have normal bodily functions. No wonder thisvideo surfaced on YouTube and was viewed over five million times within the first five days of its being uploaded. Heikin instead focuses on the real-life horrors encountered first-hand by those lucky enough to have escaped and lived to tell the tale.

This is a film confirming the startling horrors in that country are under Kim Jong-Il. We find that foreign aid was offered to North Korea in 1994 due to mass starvation, only for Kim to siphon the funds to an unseen super-elite hidden upper class to him, as well as to building their nuclear weapon program. The work camps were not only akin to those of the Stalin era, they had built-in practices of measuring rations, and imprisoning and purging at least three generations of families to every offender who is taken to the prison camp.

Writer-director N.C. Heikin
Each interview subject is compelling and engaging. A world-class pianist was shocked to find out that there were other styles of music in the world outside of North Korea when he was first sent to Russia to study classical piano, and was reported to the authorities for playing a selection by Richard Clayderman and for even listening to anything non-Korean. If even the Soviets allowed their nationals to travel (relatively) unencumbered in the U.S. and listen to Michael Jackson, something’s unquestionably more draconian about your regime. A former singer was cast out of her promising career for sounding “too South Korean” and therefore “capitalist”: just how can someone’s singing voice sound capitalist, I ask you? There are accounts of escapes northward to China, where it is reported that over two million ethnic Koreans live, many of them escapees from the North. Unfortunately, life is not necessarily better outside of the Dear Leader’s reach, as human traffickers preyed on escapees and sold them into sexual and human slavery. Human grimness seems to trail even those who escaped in the form of Kim Jong-Il’s long shadow.

Heikin could have easily made this into a talking-head-style documentary, but maintains visual interest by cruelly but effectively juxtaposing snippets of North Korean fiction films, which somehow always invoke the Dear Leader, with refugee and escapee interviews. She also frames certain scenes with shots of a female dancer dressed like a member of the Workers’ Party who freestyles in the style of Pina Bausch, expressing or reflecting on the inner turmoil that so many of her subjects still suffer today. 

Several of the interviewees remain in shadow and or half-lit in the film, to protect their identities for speaking out. There are still arrests being made in South Korea and China to this day by paid informants sympathetic to North Korea. Heikin’s film runs a slight 73 minutes, but she creates a chilling, isolating effect that you would never glimpse from the spectacular Mass Games demonstrations, footage of which is leaked to the universe at large once in awhile to try and fool the world that North Korea isn’t actually starving its own people to build nuclear weapons. When you watch footage of the Dear Leader’s funeral tomorrow on the Internet, CNN and BBC, don’t forget just who they are mourning and what that mean stood for.

Kimjongilia is now available to view on Netflix.