Review: Documentary Under The Sun shows that ‘normal, everyday life’ is a foreign concept in North Korea

Zin-mi, right, and her friend smile in Under The Sun. It’s a cute photo, but sadly, it’s one of the few times anyone looks happy in the film. Even here, the girls are probably just pretending.

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.

Documentary filmmaker Vitaly Manksy in in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2014. Mansky is standing in front of one of the many monuments to North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-Sung, and his son, Kim Jong-Il.

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.

Eight-year-old North Korean girl Zin-mi, the main character in Vitaly Mansky’s documentary Under The Sun, often looks tired and overwhelmed.

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.


RIDM presents Behemoth, a Chinese documentary about an environmental nightmare

Zhao Liang's documentary film Behemoth shows how parts of Inner Mongolia have been destroyed by coal mining.
Zhao Liang’s documentary film Behemoth shows how parts of Inner Mongolia have been destroyed by coal mining.

RIDM, Montreal’s documentary film festival, takes place in November, but festival organizers keep the doc spirit alive throughout the year with monthly screenings at Cinema du Parc.

The selection for Thursday, May 26, 2016, is the Chinese film Behemoth, from director Zhao Liang.

Behemoth looks at the human and environmental devastation created by coal mining in Inner Mongolia. The landscape is scarred and ugly, while the men have blackened faces and hands. Imagine what their lungs must look like. We don’t see any chest X-rays in the trailer, but we do see them cough and struggle for breath. We see some hooked up to oxygen tanks, too.

The sooty face of a coal miner in Zhao Liang's documentary film Behemoth.
The sooty face of a coal miner in Zhao Liang’s documentary film Behemoth.

That coal powers smoky, noisy, iron foundries and steel plants that glow with red-hot heat like a vision of hell. In fact, Zhao Liang took inspiration from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, which sees the Florentine poet travel to Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Behemoth uses excerpts from the poem in place of dialogue.

Foundry employees work with molten metal in Zhao Liang's documentary film Behemoth.
Foundry employees work with molten metal in Zhao Liang’s documentary film Behemoth.

I have read more than 10 reviews of Behemoth and they were all extremely enthusiastic. Here are quotes from a few of them.

Variety’s Jay Weissberg says Behemoth is: “stunningly lensed. . .impressively self-shot poetic exercise in controlled righteous outrage. . .”

In the New York Times, Amy Qin writes: “documentary combines with art film to produce a powerful testament to the human and environmental costs of coal mining and consumption in China, the world’s biggest user of coal and the leading emitter of greenhouse gases from coal.”

In Screen Daily,  Lee Marshall writes: “Vast swathes of once-pristine Mongolian prairieland have, in the last couple of decades, become scarred and brutalised by open-cast coal mines, iron foundries and generating stations, with thousands of desperate Chinese migrant workers brought in to feed the insatiable demand for disposable, low-paid manpower to keep them operating. That’s the background to Zhao Liang’s remarkable, powerful film Behemoth (Beixi moshuo), a sort of ‘dream documentary’ set in this ravaged landscape but liberally inspired by Dante. Behemoth achieves much of its authority from the way the images comment wordlessly on a world in which humans are reduced to the status of servants of a vast, unfeeling industrial system.”

“. . .But it’s Behemoth’s final sequence, almost devoid of human figures, that is, paradoxically the most shocking. It shows a Mongolian ghost new-town, with its serried ranks of residential skyscrapers. These are all empty, we soon realise – as are the streets that surround them. Empty, that is, except for teams of migrant-worker street sweepers – one of whom chases after a drift of tumbleweed that has entered the shot, and tidies it away. Refreshingly undidactic, Behemoth leaves us to work out that, after hell and purgatory, this empty metropolis, made by the industrial monster that ravages the steppes, and the sweat and blood of those who serve it, is the film’s tragic, ironic heaven.”

Another Screen Daily writer, Wendy Ide, put Behemoth on her list of best films of 2015. She writes: “Behemoth (Beixi Moshuo) makes me forever grateful I write about films for a living and don’t have to pick bits of molten pig iron out of my skin at the end of each working day.”

Behemoth, Le Dragon Noir, 90 minutes long, with French subtitles
Thursday, May 26, 2016 at 8 p.m.
Cinéma du Parc, 3575 Av. du Parc
To avoid disappointment, consider buying your tickets online, here on Cinéma du Parc’s web site.

RIDM+ Documentary night takes us Around the World in 50 Concerts


Around the World in 50 Concerts is a film about a world tour by he Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The documentary by Heddy Honigmann is the January selection for RIDM+, an offshoot of Montreal's RIDM film festival.
Around the World in 50 Concerts is a film about a world tour by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The documentary by Heddy Honigmann is the January selection for RIDM+, an offshoot of Montreal’s RIDM film festival.

RIDM, Montreal’s documentary film festival, takes place in November. But, to keep memories of the festival alive, and to give film fans a treat, RIDM+ presents a film on the last Thursday of the month.

January’s selection is Around the World in 50 Concerts. Filmmaker Heddy Honigmann accompanies the musicians of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on a world tour to celebrate the orchestra’s 125th anniversary. Despite the name, the film does not include excerpts from 50 concerts; most of the scenes were shot in Buenos Aires, Johannesburg and St. Petersburg.

There’s lots of praise for Around the World in 50 Concerts on the Internet. The Hollywood Reporter says it is “accessibly entertaining and suitable for audiences old and young, including those previously immune to classical music’s charms,” and the New York Times takes note of its “ecstatic impressionism, shot through with melancholy.”
On the web site of the New Zealand Film Festival: “It’s impossible to imagine a more appreciative observer of the venture than Honigmann. Her alertness to what drives musicians to dedicate their lives to performing is matched by a subtle understanding of the consolations that music can offer to any of us. And both are rendered all the more potent by her abiding sensitivity to exile, whether it be felt by a young flautist in his hotel room missing a son’s birthday halfway across the world; or by an elderly Russian who finds in Mahler’s Symphony No 8 a conduit to the vanished world of his mother who once heard it conducted by the composer himself.”
In POV Magazine, Marc Glassman says: “Honigmann is a true artist and arguably, the finest Dutch documentary director living today. (Like Canada, Holland has a fine documentary tradition, so that’s quite a statement).”

“Honigmann makes films that honour their subjects but go farther than most docs take us. In Around the World, she starts the film with the orchestra’s percussionist. What’s it like to play for only a minute in a symphony? The musician lights up and launches into a detailed explanation of how one should play the cymbals quite spectacularly—-but briefly—in the second movement of Bruckner’s 7th. The anticipation of the moment and the delight when he rises and adds his spectacular KLANG to the symphony is blissfully human.”

Members of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra share laughs in a scene from Around the World in 50 Concerts. The documentary by Heddy Honigmann is the January selection for RIDM+, an offshoot of Montreals RIDM film festival.
Members of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra share laughs in a scene from Around the World in 50 Concerts. The documentary by Heddy Honigmann is the January selection for RIDM+, an offshoot of Montreals RIDM film festival.

Ronnie Scheib of Variety writes: “Honigmann focuses on individual orchestra and audience members without fanfare, allowing them virtuoso riffs but never losing sight of the ensemble. . . Orchestra members, accustomed to her company, seem to spontaneously confide in her, telling her stories. Audience members, interviewed one-on-one in moving vehicles or in their homes, enter more fully into a dialogue with Honigmann, their exchanges very casual and conversational.” Reader Kazuhiro Soda added this enthusiastic comment to the Variety article: “I saw this film at MoMA. It was a masterpiece. It is definitely one of the best movies ever made about music but it’s much more. As always, Heddy showed us the best part of our humanity. She reminds us that there’s something beautiful in this world despite all the violence and miseries. One of the musicians in the film said that art is larger than politics. By watching the film, I truly believed it. Heddy’s approach to documentary is so classical but at the same time very modern and new.”
On his web site The Whole Note, Paul Ennis says: “The power of music to elevate, soothe and communicate is at the core of this moving documentary.” Ennis also gives a rundown of some of the music in the film: “Bruckner’s Seventh, Rachmaninov’s Paganini Variations, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and Violin Concerto, Verdi’s Requiem, Mahler’s First, Second and Eighth among others.”

Check out the trailer for Around the World in 50 Concerts below. I noticed that here are lots of smiles in it.

A 15-minute short film, Le Son Du Silence, directed by Maxim Rheault, will be shown before Around the World in 50 Concerts. Laetitia Grou, the producer of Le Son Du Silence, will be there.
Le Son Du Silence and Around the World in 50 Concerts, 8 p.m., Thursday, January 28, 2016, at Cinéma du parc, 3575 Ave du Parc.

Buy tickets online here.




RIDM 2015: Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton is one of many delights to see at Montreal’s documentary film festival

An image from Guy Maddin's film Bring me The Head of Tim Horton, one of many documentaries on the RIDM program.
An image from Guy Maddin’s film Bring Me The Head of Tim Horton, one of many documentaries on the RIDM program.

Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton – as a film title, it’s quite arresting, don’t you think? It’s one of the 144 films that will be shown at RIDM, Montreal’s documentary film festival. Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal, the festival’s full name, will run from Nov. 12 to Nov. 22, 2015, at several venues in downtown Montreal, many of them conveniently located near metro stations.

The film clip from Bring Me the Head that we saw at the RIDM press conference was hilarious. The 32-minute production from Guy Maddin and Evan and Galen Johnson is a (sort of) “making of” about Hyena Road, a war film by Paul Gross. The RIDM synopsis says the film “is possibly the wildest making-of movie of all time.” I don’t doubt that for one minute!

While we’re on the subject of Guy Maddin, the festival will also show The 1000 Eyes Of Dr. Maddin in which French filmmaker Yves Montmayeur observed Maddin while he made his latest feature, The Forbidden Room, which was the closing film at the recent Festival du nouveau cinéma.
Speaking of arresting film titles, how about Imagine Waking Up Tomorrow and All Music Has Disappeared and They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile. While the first one sounds like a scary thought, it’s more about redefining our relationship to music, but the second is about the all-too-real dangers of being a musician in Mali.

RIDM will show 144 films from 42 countries; subjects include austerity and the economy, surveillance, wars and conflicts, and their effect on soldiers and civilians alike, family relationships, or the lack thereof (women who are childless by choice), work, or the lack thereof, astronomy, the environment, politics, music and architecture. Many films combine several of those elements. We might recognize our own situations in one of the 49 short and feature films from Quebec.

The usual suspects: In regard to directors, Chantal Akerman, Patricio Guzman, Albert Maysles, Ulrich Seidl and Frederick Wiseman, are just a few of the names that might ring a bell.

An image from the film L.A. Plays Itself, by Thom Andersen.
An image from the film L.A. Plays Itself, by Thom Andersen.

A Thom Andersen retrospective will give Montrealers a chance to see (or re-see) his wonderful, 170-minute film Los Angeles Plays Itself along with seven other Andersen works of various lengths, with the shortest and earliest being Olivia’s Place, a six-minute film about a Hollywood cafe, that was made in 1966. Thom Andersen
will give a free talk on Film, Architecture and the City at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (1920 Baile St.) at 3 p.m, on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015.

The well-written synopses in the RIDM catalogue make everything sound wonderful, but below are just a few of the films I’m especially looking forward to (besides the ones already mentioned above). Clicking on the name of the film will take you to the RIDM web site for more information about it.

Le Bouton De Nacre: “A new philosophical essay by Patricio Guzmán, exploring Chile’s painful past using water as a metaphor. A majestic and heartbreaking tribute.” I thought Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light, a film about memory, astronomy, the desert and the dead and disappeared of Chile, was fantastic, so I must see Le Bouton De Nacre.

Another film with a Chilean connection is Beyond My Grandfather Allende (Allende Mi Abuelo Allende) by Marcia Tambutti Allende. The director is the granddaughter of Chilean President Salvador Allende, who was overthrown on the first infamous 911, Sept. 11, 1973. Perhaps The Place, about a meteorological observatory in Poland, might be a little bit like Nostalgia for the Light. It sounds interestring, at any rate. Star*Men is about astronomers from the U.K. who went to work in the U.S. during the Cold War and the space race.

Oncle Bernard – L’anti-Leçon D’économie is about Bernard Maris, who was one of the people killed at the offices of Charlie Hebdo earlier this year. “A fascinating and almost unedited interview with the late economic analyst for Charlie Hebdo, a tireless debunker of the myths of an ever more obscure market economy.” The film is from Richard Brouillette, who made the very long but totally engrossing film L’encerclement – La démocratie dans les rets du néolibéralisme (Encirclement – Neo-Liberalism Ensnares Democracy).

Llévate mis amores (All of Me) is about Mexican women who feed the migrants who are their way to the U.S. border; Le Divan du monde is about a psychiatrist in Strasbourg, France who helps many refugees and immigrants. “The therapy sessions of an atypical psychiatrist who sees therapy as humanist and political work.”

Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr. I’ve been following the story of Omar Khadr for a longtime, so naturally, I want to see the latest installment. In 2002, 15-year-old Khadr, a Canadian citizen who had been taken to Afghanistan by his father, was arrested for the death of a U.S. soldier there. Khadr ended up in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay Cuba. Successive Canadian governments abandoned their legal and moral duties and did little or nothing to help him. Khadr did receive support from lawyers, journalists, filmmakers, members of Amnesty International and citizens of the world. He’s now out on parole and living in the Edmonton home of his lawyer. (Toronto) “journalist Michelle Shephard and filmmaker Patrick Reed recount the story in all its complexity, analysing the U.S. government’s position and Canada’s non-intervention. . . “the film is the first time we hear Omar Khadr speak at length, after so many years of being forced to remain silent while others discussed him.”

On a more local front, Métro gives us a behind-the-scenes look at Montreal’s subway network; it was made by Nadine Gomez (Le Horse Palace). Police Académie, by Mélissa Beaudet, follows the training of three recruits (the English title is Cop Class). Pouding Chômeurs looks at how changes to the unemployment insurance program have caused hardships for many.

There will be discussions, interactive events, installations, expositions, and nine (!) parties, including a karaoke night, during the festival. You can find links to those RIDM events here.

The films mentioned above are just a teeny, tiny sampling of the films on the RIDM schedule. You can read about all of the films, watch trailers for many and buy tickets on the festival’s very comprehensive web site,
RIDM takes place Nov. 12 to Nov. 22, 2015 in Montreal.

Docville honours Albert Maysles and celebrates spring with colourful and exuberant Iris

iris apfel

RIDM, Montreal’s documentary film festival, takes place in November, but festival organizers keep film fans supplied with documentaries throughout the year via the monthly Docville program.

The presentation for Thursday, April 30, 2015, is Iris, a portrait of 93-year-old New York style icon Iris Apfel. It was the second-to-last film made by director Albert Maysles who died on March 5, 2015 at age 88.

You might have seen Iris Apfel in the documentaries Bill Cunningham, New York (2010), directed by Richard Press, or Bury My Ashes at Bergdorf’s (2013) by Matthew Miele. Both films were shown here in Montreal at Cinema du Parc.

The documentary Iris is a portrait of fashion legend Iris Apfel, directed by Albert Maysles.
The documentary Iris is a portrait of fashion legend Iris Apfel, directed by Albert Maysles.

Once seen, Apfel is not easily forgotten. She likes to wear several large necklaces at once, and covers her arms in chunky bracelets. As a look at the trailer below will show you, she isn’t one of those people who wears black all the time. More power to her, I say! The world is full of colour, so why not enjoy it as much as possible and as long as possible?
Many critics have praised the film and the obvious rapport that existed between Maysles and Apfel. (Certainly, they had time to get to know one another – Apfel told Vogue magazine that the film was shot “on and off for four years.”)

Manohla Dargis of the New York Times says: “There are few better ways right now to spend 80 movie minutes than to see Iris, a delightful eye-opener about life, love, statement eyeglasses, bracelets the size of tricycle tires and the art of making the grandest of entrances. . . this is a documentary about a very different kind of woman who holds your imagination from the moment she appears. You can’t take your eyes off Iris Apfel (she wouldn’t have it any other way), but, then, why would you want to?”

Stephanie Zacharek of the Village Voice says: “like all good documentaries, Iris is about much more than what we see on the surface, no matter how dazzling that surface may be. . . Iris is more than just a movie about an amusing lady who likes clothes an awful lot. It’s also a celebration of the revivifying power of creativity. . .Maysles’s camera opens its eyes wide to Apfel, taking the measure of her wildly beautiful and witty outfits as if it can hardly believe what it sees. There’s delight here in Maysles’s way of seeing. . .It’s also very quietly moving, considering that it’s not about growing old, but about already being there.”

Richard Brody of the New Yorker says: “The warm relationship between Apfel and Maysles comes through from the start, as she playfully shows off some of her treasures and addresses him on-camera throughout. Maysles endearingly reveals Apfel’s blend of blind passion and keen practicality, her unflagging enthusiasm for transmitting her knowledge to young people, and her synoptic view of fashion as living history.”

Iris, directed by Albert Maysles, United States, 2014, 83 min., in the original English.
Thursday, April 30, 8 p.m., at Cinéma Excentris, 3536 St. Laurent Blvd.
Single screenings cost $12 ($10 for students and seniors).

Tickets can be bought online. Doing so might be a good idea, since the Facebook page for Iris already indicates that 261 people intend to go. The Salle Cassavetes only holds 271 people and more than 1,000 (!) have been invited.
(If you can’t make it to Thursday’s screening, Iris will open at Cinéma du Parc on May 29, 2015.)