“Small children, big knives.” That’s one of the tag lines for the Norwegian documentary Tongue Cutters. There are some scary spikes, too. And forklifts zipping back and forth.
Ylwa, 9, leaves Oslo for two weeks to stay with her grandparents in Myre, northern Norway. At a fish processing plant there she will learn to cut cod tongues just as her mother and her aunt (the film’s director, Solveig Melkeraaen) used to do. Tobias,10, is already an old hand at it, and he shows Ylwa how it’s done. The first day, she can’t even bring herself to try it, but as the end of her stay nears, she’s ready to enter the “world cod-tongue cutting competition.” Is that “world” as in “World Series?” Does anyone from outside Norway enter?
When Ylwa and Tobias aren’t cutting cod tongues, they take his cute dog Alvin for walks or hang out at his spacious home, which has wall-to-wall windows with a view of the mountains and the sea. (I couldn’t help wondering – what does it cost to heat that place? Are those triple-paned windows?)
Ylwa and Tobias are such likeable characters I enjoyed watching and listening to them, whatever they were doing. They goof around with his hover board, talk about pets and the hassles of having parents who are divorced or separated. They act like the camera isn’t even there.
Ylwa is a big sushi fan and she’s disappointed that Myre doesn’t have any sushi restaurants. When she was still in Oslo, she was astounded to learn that sushi was not available when her mother was her age. “How did you survive, and not die?” she asked theatrically.
Nowadays, boys and girls cut cod tongues to earn some spending money, but many years ago, when times were harder, a young boy might have to leave school to do it full-time to help support his family. Archival photos from that era show us what life was like back then.
The documentary film Zaatari Djinn shows us what life is like for two girls and two boys in Jordan’s sprawling Zaatari camp, which is home for 80,000 to 100,000 Syrian refugees.
In the camp, Fatma, Maryam, Ferras and Hammoudi are at the mercy of their parents, circumstances, and the weather. The place is sometimes sunny, sometimes cloudy, often windy and dusty. The future is uncertain. But despite the many hardships, Zaatari Djinn is frequently lyrical and captivating. So far, it is one of my two favourite films on the RIDM schedule.
More than once, we hear a mother telling her children a story, beginning with the familiar: “Once upon a time…”
One tale involves a wicked stepmother – it sounds much like Hansel and Gretel, except that the evil woman plans to abandon the children in the searing desert, not in the deep, dark forest. One boy who has a real-life stepmother declares that she is evil. (After reading the press notes, I realized something I had not grasped while watching the film. The father married again after his wife died, then took yet another wife after moving to the camp. The two women don’t get along.)
Thanks to a drama class, Maryam has discovered the joys of acting, but her father does not approve, he says it is against their culture. Interestingly, the play she was rehearsing is Shakespeare’s King Lear, which has its share of father-daughter discord. The film show her happily playing soccer with other girsl, but the press notes say her father made her stop that, too.
Like girls in many countries, 13-year old Fatma argues with her mother about how old a girl must be before she can wear makeup and how much is too much. Like Maryam, Fatma clashes with her father. Unlike any girls I know, Fatma has a rooster for a pet and confidant. (When the rooster can’t be found, someone says many animals have been poisoned and maybe he was, too. Another indication the place is not warm and fuzzy. Who poisons animals?)
Ferras walks the streets of the camp, selling the sweets that his father makes. It’s the stuff often called Turkish Delight in the West; they call it raha in Syria. Making it requires lots of stirring with a big wooden stick. Ferras also buys the supplies, mostly sugar and cornstarch, which aren’t always available in sufficient quantities. Ferras doesn’t seem to have much choice about doing this work. While reading about the camp, I found an article online about Ferras and his father. The family had a candy factory in Dara’a, Syria, before the war. Most of the people in the camp are from Dara’a, though Fatma is from Damascus.
Hammoudi is happy when his mother offers to buy him a bicycle, and lets him choose it. He clearly knows so much about them I was surprised that the bicycle seller didn’t offer him a job. When Hammoudi accompanies his mother to the camp hospital, we see a place with modern equipment and doctors who are gentle and friendly with the children. There are many aid-group logos on the walls, and US and EU flag decals.
Hammoudi learns that he has a little brother on the way; the doctors ask him if he goes to school and if he is doing well there. (The answer to both questions is yes. Though school is mentioned several times we don’t see the inside any classrooms. Maybe the filmmakers could not get permission, maybe they did not have time for that.)
After his little brother is born, Hammoudi’s vows to protect him are so fierce they’re almost frightening. A paraphrase from memory: “I’ll kill anyone who so much as harms one hair on your head.”
Similarly, I felt distressed and uneasy watching some boys playing what might have been their version of “war“- they pointed toy guns at a playmate, and grabbed him shouting “Lock him up!” I don’t know, seeing children displaced by war playing with (toy) guns, doesn’t seem to bode well for the future.
Zaatari DjinnDirector: Catherine van Campen
Cinematographer: Jean Counet & Jefrim Rothuizen
Sound: Mark Wessner
Editor: Albert Markus
Sounddesign: Marc Lizier
Music: Alex Simu
Producers: Iris Lammertsma & Boudewijn Koole | Witfilm
Distributor: Cinema Delicatessen i.c.w. Herrie Film & TV
Contact: Nazima Mintjes (Production)
The subversive documentary film Under The Sun takes us to North Korea, where we observe 8-year-old Zin-mi as she eats with her parents in their apartment, attends school, joins the North Korean Children’s Union, and rehearses her part in a pageant that will celebrate “The Day of the Sun,” the birthday of Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of the current ruler, Kim Jong-un. The Day of the Sun (April 15) is the most important holiday of the entire year in North Korea.
We also visit the alleged workplaces of Zin-mi’s parents. (In an early meeting, Zin-mi had told filmmaker Vitaly Mansky that her father was a journalist and her mother worked in a cafeteria, but in the film they are seen as an engineer in a garment factory and a worker at a soy milk plant, respectively. Made me think of “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Mom and her co-workers wear white uniforms with red aprons and cute, red rubber boots. This echoes the white shirts and red scarves of the members of the Children’s Union.)
Mansky wanted to make a film about day to day life North Korea, with co-operation from the government. He knew there would be restraints, but he got many more than he had expected. The script was written by the North Korean government. Government minders were always close by, telling people where to walk, what to say, to speak more loudly, to show more animation. “Look at her when she’s talking!” They would make people repeat dialogue over and over to achieve the appropriate level of breathless enthusiasm. Mansky had no freedom in choosing events or locations. He was not allowed to make small talk with any North Koreans in between shooting scenes. He had to show his footage to the government at the end of each day.
You might expect the resulting film to be as exciting as the “Bulgarian tractor epics” of the past. The thing that makes Under The Sun different is that Mansky kept his cameras running all day. He did not wait for the government chaperones to yell “action,” and did not stop filming when they said “cut.” Despite all the supervision, he did not hand over ALL of his footage for scrutiny. I’ve read different explanations for exactly how that worked, but one way or the other, he had secret copies that the authorities probably did not know about until the documentary was released. On the other hand, he made filming two trips to North Korea in 2014, but never received his visa for a planned third trip. So maybe they did have an inkling, after all.
A scene of garment workers celebrating their heroic production is exceedingly awkward and unnatural. In the first take, they have surpassed their government quota by 150 per cent. By the next take, the figure has grown to 200 per cent. Seriously, how dumb do they think we are?
Even seemingly ordinary, boring scenes of people crossing a square or boarding a bus were scripted and directed. When films are sold on DVD they often include a behind-the-scenes “Making Of” documentary. Under the Sun has made those scenes an integral part of the film, instead of setting them apart.
In their alleged apartment, Zin-mi and her parents sit in front of a table that’s crowded with luscious-looking food. Remember that North Korea is a country that has lost millions of citizens to famine. After Zin-mi and her father praise the health benefits of their national dish, kimchi, (several times) the table is carried out of the room, with most of the food untouched. What happened to it? Who ate it? Perhaps Zin-mi is perfectly healthy, but she is very slight and often looks tired. Too bad they didn’t let her eat some more.
In one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the film, Zin-mi is asked how she sees her future. She has nothing to say, and starts to cry.
Needless to say, Under the Sun has not been shown officially in North Korea, though someone recorded a screening somewhere, and showed it to North Korean authorities. Those authorities contacted the Russian government, which had provided some of the film’s funding, and asked that the film be destroyed and Mansky be punished. Mansky was criticized, but he was not punished; his film was not seized. In fact, it won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Message to Man International Film Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia. And while eight theatres in Moscow refused to show it, 20 others did. In 2016, New York’s Museum of Modern Art cancelled its screening of the film, though it apologized later.
Vitaly Mansky was born in Ukraine, when it was part of the USSR. He spent most of his adult life in Russia, though he lives in Latvia now.
Random thoughts, observations and questions:
Though the Sun of the title refers to Kim Il Sung (Il Sung means “to realize the sun”) we don’t see much sunshine in the film at all. Some wintry scenes look foggy, but is it really fog, or air pollution?
Many scenes were shot in February. Mansky has said that it was very cold, even indoors. He lets us know by showing students warming their hands over a radiator in their classroom.
Every room we see, whether public or private, has portraits of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-Sung, and his son, Kim Jong-Il. There are many huge murals and monuments to them in Pyongyang. How much did those photos and monuments cost? How much food could have been bought with that money?
In interviews, Mansky has speculated that many families do not live together. He thinks that many students live at their schools and he knows that many workers live at their factories. I’d like to know more about that.
Even though North Korea is cut off from the rest of the world, clunky, ugly platform shoes managed to get in.
North Korea is often demonized because it has nuclear weapons and an unpredictable leader. There has been some talk about bombing the place, “taking out Kim Jong-un,” etc. Films like Under The Sun add some nuance to the us-and-them narrative, and showing us the people who could be killed by those bombs.
Hope for the future? The huge monuments, the exercise instructions given over loud speakers, and the huge squares filled with robotic, marching people reminded me of scenes from China in the 1960s. Life in China might be far from perfect now, but it seems better than it was. Maybe things will improve for North Koreans, too? (Without the poisoned air and water of China?)
Choosing a girl to be the main character in this story might be the final irony. An article on the web site of Human Rights Watch says that “every day North Korean women face severe gender discrimination at work and home, and sexual harassment and violence that the authorities do nothing to stop.”
That name though….It’s a minor point, but the name Zin-mi was puzzling. In decades of watching Korean films I don’t remember anyone named Zin-mi. Articles about hangul, the Korean writing system, and hangul charts don’t show any symbols that correspond to “Z.” There are some online articles from South Korea that call her Jin-mi.
Under The Sun, directed by Vitaly Mansky
Russia, Latvia, Germany, Czech Republic, North Korea | 2016 | 106 minutes
In the original Korean, with English subtitles
Under The Sun was shown by RIDM+, January-to-May series of films presented by RIDM, the Montreal International Documentary Festival. RIDM will run from November 9 to 19, 2017.
The mystery of the night, primordial fears, the power of a mother’s love – those are some of the ingredients in Fox Fears (Kitsune Tsuki)
a lovely short animated short from Japan. (Nothing to do with the nefarious U.S. TV network!) Director Miyo Sato made Fox Fears using sand and paint on glass.
The story begins the way a low-key horror film might. A young boy named Bunroku narrates the story. Under a bright moon, he was walking to a night festival with his friends, but he couldn’t keep up with them because he was wearing his mother’s clogs. (Not the right size, I guess. What happened to his own shoes? Too small? They broke?)
He and his friends stop at a clog shop so he can buy new ones. While they are in there, we hear distant music from the festival – flutes and drums. One flute sounded a bit like a wolf’s howl, to me. After the boy makes his purchase, a mysterious old woman appears and tells them that buying clogs after dark means you will turn into a fox. Don’t they know that? “Lies!” they shout, and head off to the festival, with its lanterns, banners, floats and music. (I would have liked to spend a few more seconds at this festival!)
Bunroku tells us that his friends would always see him safely home, and yet somehow this night, they do not. He imagines foxes and their shadows stalking him all the long, long way home. Once he gets there (guess that’s a spoiler, sorry!) he tells his mother what happened and she reassures him there’s nothing to worry about. She uses the word “lies,” as well. Maybe superstition is too big a word and too big a concept for a little kid. Not to mention folklore or mythology.
But Bunroku needs further reassurance. “But what if I DID turn into a fox?” His mother has an answer to that. He has more complicated questions and she has more detailed answers. I won’t spoil all that for you. One of the imagined scenarios is tragic and might bring the susceptible to tears.
Even thought they are having a theoretical, late-night, drowsy chat about shapeshifting, it is very clear that Bunroku’s mother would do anything and everything to keep him safe. That’s what good mothers everywhere do. It’s quite an amazing thing!
References and my reactions: It is possible that I am seeing things in Fox Fears that director Miyo Sato did not intend. Who knows, really. But, one way or the other, those things added to my enjoyment of the film.
Fox Fears has a dreamy, timeless quality. I don’t remember seeing any cars, buses, trucks, cellphones. If not for a light bulb seen at Bunroku’s home, and the Western clothes on some characters, the story could have taken place hundreds of years ago.
I find it cute that he’s wearing his mother shoes. I used to wear my mother’s boots when I was quite young (I had big feet!) That made me feel closer to her, not to mention that her boots were prettier and more stylish than mine.
The clog shop looks isolated, on the edge of the forest. That reminded me of so many films, Japanese ones in particular, where magical (and/or evil) places only exist at night. In the light of day, there is nothing there at all. Or just some ruins. The people who seem to live in those places are really ghosts or demons. Eat or drink what they give you and you will be under their power forever. Does that clog shop even exist in the day time?
Foxes and fox spirits figure in Japanese folklore and films; I’ve read some of those stories and seen some of those films. They appear in Chinese and Korean tales and films too, though the details vary.
I saw Fox Fears (Kitsune Tsuki) at Les Sommets du cinéma d’animation de Montréal 2016, at the Cinémathèque Québecoise.
Fox Fears (Kitsune Tsuki)
Director: Miyo Satori
Length: 7 min., 38 sec
Completed date: 2015