Under the Sun reminds us that documentaries are created objects and can never offer a simple view of “reality.”
One of the dominant trends of modern life is that of globalization, which provides both greater access to the world and a certain inevitable homogenization. So you can eat at McDonald’s or KFC in Tokyo or at YO! Sushi or Pollo Campero in New York City, and no one thinks anything of it. The same goes for travel and business—taking your vacation is a foreign country is not that big a deal, and neither is working or studying in a land other than the one you were born in.
One holdout to this trend is North Korea, which remains resolutely isolated and thus one of the few truly foreign places left in the world. We don’t know much about what goes on within that country’s borders, and when “news” does surface, it tends to be bizarre and of questionable veracity. So the fact that Russian director Vitaly Mansky was able to shoot a documentary within North Korea is noteworthy in and of itself, and the resulting film would be of interest if it did nothing more than offer a glimpse of a world most people will never be able to see for themselves. Mansky did far more, however, creating a documentary that both lays bare the attempts by the North Korean government to control the message of the film and highlights the kinds of manipulation that are typical of many documentary films (including some of the most celebrated documentaries by some of the most celebrated Western directors) but which tend to pass without notice.
Mansky was invited by the North Korean government to shoot Under the Sun, which they intended to be a documentary celebrating the glories of life in North Korea. The story centers around Zin-mi, the “ordinary” 8-year-old daughter of an “ordinary” family in Pyongyang, with the main event being Zin-mi’s induction into the Children’s Union on Kim Jon-Il’s birthday, aka “The Day of the Shining Star.” North Korean authorities attempted to control every aspect of the film—providing Mansky with a script, casting the roles, choosing the locations, supervising the shoots, and inspecting the resulting footage—but they forgot that he who controls the editing suite controls the final product.
To avoid drawing suspicion, Mansky shot the film according to the instructions of his North Korean minders but kept the cameras rolling between takes, thus recording the extensive coaching received by the actors as well as the multiple takes of scenes meant to represent shots of daily life that just happened to take place before the camera. Presumably ,the North Korean authorities thought this non-scene footage would simply be cut during the editing process, but since they didn’t demand inspection of the final film, the joke’s on them.
By deliberately leaving in multiple takes of the same scene, as well as between-takes coaching (when, for instance, Zin-mi is insufficiently convincing in extolling the health benefits of kimchi during a hoe meal which is more like a banquet), Mansky leaves no doubt that nothing you see in this film can be taken at face value. He also includes shots of actors studying their scripts, while title cards provide additional information about manipulations within the film, such as the fact that the adults playing Zin-mi’s parents were assigned occupations—as an engineer in a garment factory and a worker at a soy-milk plant—in locations that the government deemed most appropriate for their propaganda efforts.
What I find most interesting about Under the Sun is not that it shows up a bungled attempt at propaganda, but that it highlights the kinds of manipulations that are present in many documentaries accepted within the Western canon. Fictional devices such as scripting action, staging scenes, casting actors, coaching performances, and choosing locations to cast a particular slant on a scene are not practices invented in North Korea but are part of the tool bag of some of the most eminent of Western documentarians, including Robert Flaherty, Jean Rouch, Werner Herzog, and Michael Apted. And that’s not even counting the many other directorial choices that shape the final film, including what to shoot in the first place, what to include in the film product, and how to put it all together to create the film shown to the audience. Under the Sun reminds us that documentaries are created objects and can never offer a simple view of “reality,” but at best can offer an interesting view of how someone perceives it. | Sarah Boslaugh
Under the Sun is distributed on DVD and VOD by Icarus Films, with a street date of Sept. 20. I reviewed it from a screening link, so I can’t comment on whether any extras will be included with the DVD.