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Two Films Take a Closer Look at the Lives in Pyongyang

Posted August. 18, 2005 03:05,   


One traveled to North Korea for success and the other defected from the same country for survival. But they have one thing in common, which is they are confident that they know the truth about the country. Ju Sung-ha, a Dong-A Ilbo correspondent and a North Korea defector, sat down with Daniel Gordon (33), a British director of documentary films about North Korea, at the Dongsung Art Center, Dongsung-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul.

The British director is visiting South Korea, as his two films are scheduled to be released on August 26. His documentary film titled “A State of Mind” depicts the course of practices and everyday lives of two Pyongyang schoolgirls who are preparing themselves for a mass calisthenics. The other film, which is titled “The Game of Their Lives,” is about the North Korean soccer team that made it to the quarterfinal at the British World Cup in 1966. The reporter, who is a graduate of the Kim Il Sung University, defected from the North in 2000 and arrived in the South in 2001. Since he joined the newspaper in 2003, he has been working as a reporter in the international division.

Ju said, “Many South Koreans are surprised to hear that some North Korean children have enough to eat, so they sometimes don’t finish their meals like South Korean children. This highlights that South Koreans don’t exactly understand the North. Your films are very realistic and touching, because you brought the camera into the houses of people in Pyongyang. This is what I can say with confidence about your film, as a person who had lived in the city for a decade.”

Switching gears, Ju said, “I watched ‘A State of Mind’ with a woman who also defected from the North. She was also a member of a mass calisthenics,” adding, “She was disappointed to find that there were no scenes in which the girls are physically disciplined during the practice, because that is what she experienced in the past.” Gordon answered, “Maybe I didn’t have a chance to see it, given that I filmed a group of elite gymnasts.”

In “A State of Mind,” 13 year-old Hyun Sun and 11 year-old Song Yeon are no different from teenagers in any other country. They are late for school and they played hooky to avoid boring gym practices. They hate being scolded by their parents, and they are pleased that they have their own room after their sister joined the army.

He added, “The most difficult part was to convince North Korean officials that I didn’t mean to deceive them and didn’t have any other underlying intention. It is not easy to understand the North Koreans’ group mentality, but when you’re with them, you realize that there are strong emotional bonds among them.”

A Couple of Questions about the Film by Ju-

“Song Yeon, whose father is a physics professor at Kim Il Sung University, has a pet dog. A pet dog costs at least $400 or approximately 400,000 won in Pyongyang. This is equivalent to what her father earns in 300 months! It is unrealistic, unless they have a relative or someone in Japan to send them money every month.”

Gordon answered, “I saw lots of pet dogs in the Pyongyang streets.”

Ju said, “Maybe the pet dog, which used to be controlled by the government as a capitalist product, is now embraced as the symbol of wealth.”

The director said, “The breeds of dogs were not that good, though.” Ju answered, “I guess so, because most dogs in the North are imported from China.”

As the conversation neared the end, Ju asked, “Your documentary was shot in the very central area in Pyongyang. Have you ever considered filming it in local areas? If you wanted to film the lives of two girls in provincial areas, do you think that North Korean authorities would have given you the green light?”

“In fact, it is very tough to finance a documentary about North Korea. It is a tall order to raise funds for movies about the North because they are regarded as ‘too politically sensitive’ or ‘not lucrative.’ I’m confident that we can gain access to provincial areas if we have no financial barriers.”

The director, who has recently finished filming his third documentary called “Cross the Line,” which is about an American solider who recently crossed the border to North Korea, said, “This is going to be my last documentary on North Korea.”

Seung-Jae Lee sjda@donga.com