• Songs From the North

Tonight at 6 PM South Korean-born, Massachusetts-based filmmaker Soon-Mi Yoo will introduce her documentary feature Songs From the North at the Gene Siskel Film Center. The movie represents an attempt to understand North Korean society on human terms, which alone makes it a must-see. In the West our understanding of the subject is informed primarily by North Korean propaganda and reports from outside news organizations, neither of which presents a clear picture of everyday life in that country. (The Guardian, though, has been trying to rectify this problem with an ongoing series of articles called “Ask a North Korean.”) South Koreans may have an even more limited perspective, since their government strictly regulates what citizens are allowed to see of North Korea—and given the hostile relationship between North and South, the images they get are overwhelmingly negative. Yoo, who shot footage for her movie over three trips to North Korea between 2011 and 2012, claims to have made Songs as much for her own edification as for the public’s.

Throughout the film Yoo acknowledges that street-level reporting brought her only so far. “All visitors to North Korea are escorted at all moments—except in the privacy of their hotels—by official government ‘minders,’ or guides,” she explained in a recent e-mail, “who try to monitor your every action and carefully explain the official rules for shooting still or motion pictures in DPRK.” Ordinary people proved to be just as image-conscious. Often in Songs we see an individual agree to stand before Yoo’s camera, only to go silent within moments. Few shots of public life last longer than half a minute, as minders regularly interrupted Yoo whenever she started shooting. Outside the clips from vintage North Korean movies and footage of a recent national pageant, the longest takes, it seems, are those shot from Yoo’s hotel window, overlooking a depopulated town square in winter.

“Is North Korea the loneliest place on Earth?” reads a title card appearing after one of the hotel-window shots. “A country without friends, without history. Only myths repeated endlessly from morning to night.” That’s a grim assessment, but one strength of Songs is that Yoo takes those myths seriously and tries to understand their power. (In fact the film’s poetic structure—based around repeated and rhyming images—derives from the propagandistic songs Yoo heard everywhere she went.) She traces the legend to the 1940s, when Kim Il-sung built his reputation as a national patriarch who not only revived a ravaged Korea, but provided a sense of family for the country’s many orphaned children. This myth had broad appeal at first. In short interview segments, Yoo’s father recounts that many of his leftist friends from Seoul headed north in the early days of the DPRK on the basis of Kim’s utopian promise. (He never heard from any of them again, leading him to presume that they’d been imprisoned or killed—it’s been reported that many who emigrated to North Korea at this time were later branded as spies, then imprisoned or killed.)

  • Songs From the North

Legends of the “Great Leader” remain powerful two decades after his death, having pervaded the national consciousness some time ago. “North Korea thinks of itself as a ‘family state,’ a family that comes before any kind of self-interest,” Yoo writes. During the national pageant, we see a boy who can’t be more than ten years old stand before a crowd of thousands, denounce his absentee father, and pledge loyalty to the current leader, Kim Jong-un. What makes this scene so unnerving is the evident sincerity of the boy and the audience members that Yoo capture unawares. Everyone we see is in tears, despite the fact that the boy’s testimony was clearly scripted and rehearsed. Is the audience also acting on command?

Yoo’s answer isn’t skeptical. “Maybe their tears come from the fact that being an orphan in Korean society—both North and South—and not having parents to protect you is considered the worst possible fate. [The boy’s] story of abandonment by his father is basically the story of North Korea. They are orphans whose biological parents do not have the strength to protect them from outside threats, such as attacks by the U.S.” The U.S. has attacked North Korea before, and the most sobering passages of Songs concern atrocities perpetuated by the U.S. during the Korean War. Yoo presents firsthand accounts of wartime atrocities taken from a North Korean history museum and the U.S. National Archive. None of the findings reflect well on the U.S.

“I didn’t realize the extent to which the U.S. had completely decimated North Korea,” she writes. “The kind of war crimes committed, such as deliberately bombing dams and basically obliterating all infrastructure, has remained unrecognized [in the U.S.]. The constant threat by the Americans of using atomic bombs on North Korea was real—and almost happened.” These discoveries serve to contextualize North Korea’s paranoid vision of the outside world. They also suggest that Americans might benefit from interrogating their own country’s historical narratives.