Recently, Den already published an article about a documentary film Under the Sun, which depicts the life of one family in North Korea. Today we offer you an interview with the author of this undoubtedly phenomenal movie: Russian and European documentary film director of Ukrainian origin (born in Lviv), Vitaly Mansky.
“PYONGYANG ITSELF IS LIKE A HORROR MOVIE”
You have already been speaking much about North Korea. What is the most terrible thing for you there?
“It’s the aggregate of all the things. If you take a separate issue there, it looks like an attraction. But all of them together are mesmerizing. Pyongyang itself is like a horror movie... Somewhere near the end of the first expedition, we became paranoid that somebody can enter as we sleep, and steal our materials. Of course, no one there would be sneaking around at night; they would just stop us and order unceremoniously: “take everything out of your pockets.” Bu we started barricading our rooms. Every evening we assembled chairs in front of our doors to prevent them from being opened from the outside; we did this in all sincerity, without any shame. Now I talk about it and think that it was childish. But that’s what you get when you stay there.”
Among other episodes, there is a very characteristic one, in which all these festively dressed men and women suddenly come out of the trolley bus and begin to push it. Is there a rational explanation for this?
“There is a technical one – the electricity in the city goes off regularly. And thus trolley buses stop moving. There is no practical sense in it, it is just one of the artistic strokes, much like the episode with the queue that stretches around the corner. We do not even know what’s in the end of that queue, coupons or money, why are they all standing at night – there is no explanation to it. Those are just episodes that complement the overall atmosphere. And then there are the things that look more impressive when you describe them, than they would have looked on the screen.”
“We lived opposite the National Theatre. The area in front of it was always lit at night. It is something unusual for Pyongyang – they are very frugal for electricity. So that place, with the lamps, had people coming to it every night. Several people were standing under every lamp, which allowed them to read or write something. Can you imagine it? But that did not work in cinematic terms. A trolley bus on the screen looks impressive, although the explanation of this scene can be absolutely trivial.”
By the way, the scene with the trolley bus, as well as some other moments, has a fairly emotional music imposed on it. What is it for? After all, what is happening is eloquent enough by itself.
“I needed the emotional props. There is an orthodox point of view, which prohibits the use of music in documentaries. But when the tools at your disposal are extremely limited, you, of course, employ additional expressive means to create an atmosphere. As the director, I assigned a task for the composer, and was very pleased that he understood me correctly.”
“THIS WORK WAS A FULL-FLEDGED INTELLIGENCE OPERATION”
Probably, you had to omit many more interesting details.
“But we have not been able to film a lot. We could film unsupervised only from the window of my hotel room. I tried to get a permission to shoot outdoors, on any street at the choice of our supervisors, but I never got it. So we did like this: for example, when working in a school yard, we discreetly equipped a 600 mm lens and filmed a house in the neighborhood to get at least some kind of unscripted footage. In the same way, using monument to the leaders as a cover, we were filming the city.”
And how did you manage to keep the unauthorized material? I read that the operator allegedly had to hide in the toilet...
“In general, this work was a full-fledged intelligence operation. Talking to each other in the hotel we had to use words understandable only to us. For example, dubbing was encoded as washing socks: ‘How are the socks?’ – ‘I dunked them. Another 20 minutes and then we will wash them.’ Again, this affects the psyche. I had a couple of setbacks.”
What exactly was the reason?
“When you’re not in the room, you are surrounded by supervisors. You cannot just look out the window. I already told him: ‘Listen, can you move away ten steps? I want to stand alone a bit, that’s all.’ There is no camera or anything, but he did not understand – he says: ‘but I’m only helping you!’ Their task is to stand beside us. And it’s mind-blowing. When the operator goes to the toilet, a supervisor stands near the toilet. Everything is like that.”
Good knowledge of the equipment, obviously, helped you a lot.
“Knowledge helped. They do not have that kind of knowledge.”
It seems like a government’s failure to assign such incompetent detectives to you.
“They don’t have competent ones. They do not know that new equipment exists. We can visit a website to see everything. There’s no Internet there, they don’t use paper sources of information either. They are, of course, taught, but there are more important aspects than cinema, and they very rarely film – thus there are failures.”
“I STARTED RECEIVING THREATS AS SOON AS IT BECAME KNOWN THAT THE FILM IS READY”
Your character, an eight-year-old schoolgirl Zin Mi, and her parents – are they a real family?
“Yes. Another question is whether they live a real family life. It is unclear whether they live as families in the conventional sense. Because in the factories where we were filming, people lived in the incorporated barracks; children apparently lived in schools. I have seen the relevant premises. Everything else is open to question – do they all live there, or there are days when families come together; whether any apartments are reserved for the people, or do they have something like a meeting house? What I’m talking about is my impression based not on the facts – there are no facts there, because there is no public information – the impression is based on what I really saw. I combine different observations and make a judgment. For example, we remember the film Red Orchestra, also filmed in North Korea, the director of which had noticed that there were no people with disabilities in the streets. They are not seen as part of normal society. He came with a disabled person who wanted to communicate with anyone in the same situation, they began to ask questions – and in the entire North Korea they could not find a single person with disability.”
You know, there are concerns over the freedom and lives of those who were filmed by your camera, as well as for the security officers that were looking after you...
“Of course they can be punished, for they failed to stop us. But they can also be punished simply for the fact of their existence. They are already all punished. You cannot influence it. Your question should be at the entrance: do you enter there or not? And that’s all. No nuances. You came in – and that’s all. As simple as that.”
Were you threatened?
“As soon as it became known that the film is ready, I started to get direct and indirect threats; there were also official notes of protest. I have endured it more or less comfortably, because that is an open situation. When the North Korean authorities realized that I do not live in Russia, and the Russian state has no direct forms of influence on me, I suddenly started receiving very smarmy letters. They wrote: ‘the most respected sir, beloved and dear, would you be so kind to come to us and talk?’ And that was really bothering me. It turns out that they believe the world to be so simple, that they can write a letter to a person and have that person come to the country. This is the country which just a week ago imprisoned a student for 15 years for tearing down a poster with the leader in a hotel – and they want me to go there and volunteer for life sentence?”
“I WAS FORCED TO LEAVE RUSSIA”
I would like to know a little about your new film Relatives, which you filmed in Ukraine. At what stage is it?
“It is nearing completion. The question is the issue of my own volition: either we can finish now, or do a little more work on it. Emotionally, the statement has been spoken. We still have to decide on how to construct this statement.”
Would you share any details?
“I filmed my relatives – mother, aunts, brothers – and I think I managed to show quite a fragile, intimate, but very significant phase of the social conditions formation in the crucial period of the two countries. This movie is not ideological; it is not ‘for’ or ‘against,’ it expresses diametrically opposite views. The whole movie is made in Ukraine; on the other hand, there is the factor of the author, who is a part of the family, and who represents Russia. At the time of filmmaking, the author undergoes certain changes in his attitude.”
Was the refusal of the Russian Ministry of Culture to finance the project a final decision? Have they hinted you that you might change the script to receive what you want?
“The situation is abundantly simple. At that time in Russia, the Ministry of Culture had been financing about 400 documentary projects directly, and only 10 via an open competition. I went, as usual, for the second route. We won. The protocol was published, everything was officially confirmed. And the minister, for the first time in Russian history, canceled the experts’ decision entirely on his own. As a person who is weak, cowardly, and small, not only in height, but also in his soul, he was cutting in parts. First, the protocol was removed from the site; then the experts were threatened to abandon their decision. The experts – they are, by the way, dependent from the Ministry – refused. Then the officials began to talk to the press that it was too dangerous in Ukraine to let such a valuable film director go there. And finally, they plainly refused to provide the funding.”
And what is the result?
“So far, Relatives is one of the largest co-productions in the last decades of the Russian cinema, though it is no longer Russian. Five countries are involved, there are some European TV channels; State Committee for Cinematography of Ukraine also participates in the project, which is very important. It turns out to be a big movie that will hit the box office and the television in many countries; festivals are also showing interest. The work, of course, has become more difficult. I was forced to leave Russia. But I have built my life.”
Did not think that you can go back to Ukraine, at least as a filmmaker?
“If Ukraine has really chosen the European path for development, then I need not to go back here – because Ukraine goes back to Europe, where I live.”
“THE CONSEQUENCES ARE IRREVERSIBLE THERE”
The last question is about the country you left. Do you see at least some possibility of better prospects there?
“What is happening in Russia today is an utter disaster, not only for me – for the whole country. For those 86 percent who continue to support Putin it is an even greater problem, because the remaining 14 can at least understand the extent of the problem. When one understands, they can at least make some decisions to influence their life. As for this majority, which has given themselves to the slaughter – the consequences for them are already serious, and I fear irreversible.”