Contributed by Ipsita Sahu
My Brothers and Sisters in the North
A film by Sung-Hyung Cho
My Brothers and Sisters in the North (2016), by South Korean filmmaker Sung-Hyung Cho, is in my opinion, possibly one of the most complex and insightful documentaries on North Korea. As in the case of any documentary, and especially the political documentary form, the background of its film-making process is integral to the merit and proper understanding of the story told, demanding its brief recount at the outset.
Given the history of severe political hostility between the two neighbouring countries of the Korean peninsula, Cho, who is an active documentary filmmaker, had to make some difficult choices (which is not a rare experience for some of the most serious documentary filmmakers in the world). She had to forgo her South Korean passport and take on German citizenship to enter the forbidden provinces of North Korea. Despite this trying procedure, she was naturally fearful of what she might encounter on the other side of the border. Indeed, her first choice had been to merely finish an earlier film about the fraught relationship between a German and North Korean couple, a proposal which was not entertained by the authorities. As such, she began a new project, one deceptively simple and straightforward in its approach – to interview a group of ordinary North Korean citizens pre-selected by the North Korean authorities to provide hagiographic narratives of the state. Despite the officially controlled and premeditated circumstances of the project, the film crew’s meeting on the other side was nothing less than unexpected and profound. The filmmaker herself conveys this overwhelming experience in the film’s moving title, My Sisters and Brothers in the North, thus crucially lending a human dimension to the inhabitants of one of the most secluded and inaccessible countries in the world, hitherto known only through media images as ‘robotic’ subjects seen in frenzied mass military parades of a totalitarian dictatorship. The film shows these enigmatic “robots” going about their everyday lives, in their homes and work places, expressing universal friendly emotions of warmth, eagerness, curiosity, and hospitality, thereby revealing that which is consciously and unconsciously hidden in this estranged society. Through complex layers of ambiguities, the film conveys the deep desolation in the apparent denial in the protagonists’ sycophantic accounts of an all too pitiable reality.
Unlike some of the other impactful political documentaries on coercive regimes, the film does not touch upon explicit violent issues, or directly address the sheer horrors of the most inhuman acts of government brutality in North Korea, the rampant human right’s violations, the frequent ‘disappearances’ and public executions which is part of regular life for North Koreans, chillingly redolent of Nazi Germany. What is perhaps the greatest challenge and achievement of the film, is the very focus on the seemingly neutral topics of the routine life and the ‘ordinary’. The film maker initiates conversational inquiries about familial relations, romances, professional routines, personal ambitions and dreams. Oddly, all responses, even about the most private affairs get linked to the state. For example, a 26-year-old female officer, already having served ten years in the military, discusses in a rather insipid, matter-of-fact manner, her recent wedding engagement, and refers to her fiancé as a ‘comrade’. The scene strikes as incongruous and ironic as she speaks reverently about her uniform and hard military training involving physical combat and warfare, while the camera juxtaposes shots of a doll in a fluffy wedding gown perched prominently in the background of her room. A farmer’s reserved wife, on being asked what she likes (romantically) about her husband, describes his qualities as a good farmer. Upon further prodding regarding her personal dreams, she admits liking to sing on stage and in the next scene we see her perform in a choir, animatedly singing songs of praises for the leader, Kim Jong-Il to a rapturous audience. A grandmother on the one hand lovingly dotes on her grandson’s good looks in one scene and in another, professes that she would be proud of him if he drowned himself in a situation to sacrifice his own life for the country. A young girl, one of the ‘best employees’ of a clothes’ factory, who works for more than twelve hours a day, expresses bewilderment when asked about how she spends her personal time after work. After passing most of her day amongst colleagues in an extremely demanding and inhuman work environment, she airs faint scorn at the suggestion of wanting alone time, reckoning it to be an unbecoming and bizarre act. Interestingly, the camera focuses on her fingers at one point, clutching and releasing the sand on the beach, perhaps suggestive of her calculative responses.
It is difficult to ascertain how much of these reactions are ‘authentic’ and how much is feigned and performed for the camera for fear of state retribution in the likelihood that the footage could well be investigated by authorities. The pressure factor remains that these protagonists are the chosen ‘ideal’ subjects of the state. Notwithstanding the ambiguities and more apparent pretensions, it is evident that both collective as well as personal lives have reached a point of crisis. While collective acts are almost as devoid of agency as the imitative gymnastics and choir performances, personal time is probably equally constrained and hollowed when there is an utter lack of privacy with an exceptionally intrusive surveillance system demanding public and private forms of political veneration. One is left to wonder, if these protagonists take on a dual life to cope with their harsh environment, and if they do, to what extent the elements of disguising and make belief have become second nature to their interaction with each other and even to the formation of their own subjectivity. In showing the vulnerabilities enacted in everyday activities against the shadows of state pathology, the film interrogates notions of the ‘ordinary’ everyday.
Perhaps one of the most interesting characters in the film is the official painter, who creates propaganda posters for the government. Eccentric and boisterous, the painter has a knack for manipulating the appearances of his models to a desired effect in his finished works. He often juxtaposes one woman’s face with another’s body and background setting. His rationale for this distortion is a complete rejection and disdain for the ‘nasty’ and ‘ugly’. The painter’s naïve and reductive approach towards his works is not merely indicative of the absolute stagnancy and impoverishment of art and culture, but is symbolic of the contagion of masking, distortion and erasure that comes (un)naturally to all – government and civilians alike in North Korea. This could possibly be the only survival strategy for the oppressed to deal with a contradictory reality.
The film thus navigates through these complex layers of masking and stylistically uses a mix of cinema-vérité, the observational mode, and the interview method. The observational mode is used minimally–for instance when documenting performances, and the scenes in the schools–to effectively portray the process of indoctrination for toddlers and school kids. However, the film is careful not to suggest a similar transparency with the adult subjects, for whom an amiable yet penetrating interview process is deployed. At one crucial point the film also consciously brings attention to its own artifice and the intrusive presence of the ‘camera’, by including a footage with a distracted reference by one of the protagonists to the ‘invisible’ film crew, besides the interviewer. Yet, the point of the film is precisely to discerningly witness and wade through these slippery mediations. With negligible voice overs, allowing the content to manifest within a plurality of meanings, character interiority and interpretations, the film more subtly intervenes with dystopic shots of the city’s night scene, combined with a chilling soundtrack to evoke the clutching cape of fear that lurks in the everyday. Like the darkness that descends upon the cityscape of Pyongyang, North Korea’s (fake) ‘spectacular’ capital city, when one sees no human activity but only brightly lit hoardings and propagandist murals, the eerie silence of the night mirrors the muteness and shadowy lives of its inhabitants.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Ipsita Sahu is currently pursuing her doctoral studies in Cinema Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her key research area includes cinema history and exhibition spaces of New Delhi, and the history of early television in India. Due to her interest in visual arts, Sahu has also made short films on the lives and works of some of the iconic modern artists of India, and has contributed articles to various exhibition catalogues and academic publications on cinema and visual art.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.