The more I know, the less I know.
That is to say, the more I learn, the more I realize that there's so much I will never learn, that there's so much to know and never enough time to know it all. Unsurprisingly, I have huge gaps in my knowledge. One of these gaps is North Korea.
Here's what I know about North Korea: it's a communist nation; the U.S. fought a thinly-veiled war against the Soviets with Korea as a staging ground; M*A*S*H was set in Korea; our President considers North Korea part of the Axis of Evil; the biggest nuclear threat to Portland is probably from North Korea. That's it. That's all I know. And some of that is probably wrong.
Because of this, it was eye-opening to watch A State of Mind, a recent documentary about one aspect of life in North Korea. Now I have a better understanding of North Korea as a nation, of its people and its culture.
A State of Mind (netflix)is nominally the story of two girls preparing to perform in the enormous gymnastics exhibition that is North Korea's Mass Games. The film is about more than that, though. It's about ideology. It's about culture. It's about family. It's about privation. For ninety minutes, it transports the viewer into another world.
One strength of this film is that it is completely non-judgmental. It neither praises nor condemns communist North Korea, with its food rationing and its rolling blackouts. It neither praises nor condemns the blatant propaganda pushed by the State, or the Orwellian "always-on" radio in every household. When the lights come one evening after a blackout, one girl's father shouts, "Dirty American Imperialists! This is their fault!" (or something similar).
The dedication with which these girls, aged eleven and thirteen, train for the Mass Games is remarkable. For months, they spend two hours every afternoon learning synchronized gymnastics moves with hundreds of other girls. In the weeks leading up to the event, they actually spend eight hours a day in training. The results are spectacular: a mass of human motion in which individuals are subsumed into a giant collective group organism capable of great beauty.
A State of Mind isn't for everyone. I'm sure that many would find the film slow and tedious. I found it fascinating. It was like a travelogue to a hidden kingdom where cold Soviet-style architecture stood side-by-side with Japanese-style tradition. It was interesting to see some aspects of 1984 and Anthem made real. (It's a chilling reminder of the direction this country is headed with all of the State-sponsored propaganda we're fed, and especially the ongoing erosion of individual rights.)
Some North Korea-related links:
- Bizarre trip of a lifetime, in which a small group of American travelers is allowed inside the country.
- A gulag with nukes: inside North Korea.
- Grid-Locked, about the North Korean energy crisis.
Obviously, this film is yet another in the series of documentaries that Kris and I have been watching. She admits that she, too, finds them fascinating. They're generally much more fulfilling than a normal movie. I'd much rather watch a film like Mass Games than a film like King Kong or 40-Year-Old Virgin. Did I already ask you all to recommend documentaries for us? I don't care: I'll ask again. Tell me about documentaries that you loved, and I'll add them to my Netflix queue.