Goosestepping soldiers, synchronous mass dancing, hysteric crying in public:
just some of the images we probably all have of North Korea. And also the pictures frequently shown by the media when dealing with the closed-up country. “Songs from the North” by Soon-Mi Yoo provides a fresh, but not uncritical look at North Korea.
The documentary, which was shown at the Vienna Film Festival Viennale, cuts between state-produced films and musicals and Yoo’s own footage from her three trips to North Korea from 2010 to 2012. Instead of narrating with a voice-over, Yoo places texts and questions on a black screen between scenes. One of the most poignant questions she asks is: “Is North Korea the loneliest country on the planet?”.
Yoo sees North Koreas as a country with no friends and no connections to history, a place where only narrative counts. She found a lot of the state’s narrative in films on YouTube. And as a native South Korean, Yoo selects and translates these state-staged scenes: a little boy crying on stage at a New Year’s celebrations and thanking Kim Jong-Un for providing for him and letting him perform, even though his own father proved unworthy of the country; patriotic songs praising Kim Il-Sung; and popular operas and films. What makes “Songs from the North” special is that it does not slide into ridiculing North Koreans, portraying them as brainwashed or strange, as so often happens.
In a QandA session after the film, Soon-Mi Yoo sums up her attitude very simply: “Who am I to judge?”. Rather, she leaves the viewers to get their own impressions, especially when juxtaposing the state-staged narrative with her own footage of North Koreans hurrying across a freezing-cold town square, a group of school children excitedly greeting a leader’s statue, or one of her government minders starting to cry silently when asked about Kim Il-Sung. The scenes she manages to capture after being asked to turn off her camera (and before being asked to “really now turn off the camera”) are also fascinating – in that they show nothing that, to my untrained eyes, would be a reason no to film: people walking along snowy country roads, or people in a city street.
“Do North Koreans still hear the loudspeakers?” Soon-Mi Yoo asks. Do they believe the narratives they are shown, or do they read the message between the lines? “Songs from the North” doesn’t give an answer, but it provides a rare glimpse into the narratives themselves.