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State of Mind

     "For the first time ever, North Korea, the secret state, has revealed itself to outsiders," brags the voiceover of A State of Mind. This BBC documentary directed and written by Daniel Gordon takes you where you assuredly have not ventured before, into the streets, the schools, the private residences of those living in Pyungyang, North Korea. It's amazing to be transported there, the capitol city of that perplexing, alien country which has been our official enemy since the early 1950s, the Korean War, and which George W. has branded, infamously, as an "Axis of Evil."

      How did this western crew get access to the most paranoid and cut-off country on earth, the only nation which closed borders to every kind of transportation-- trains, planes, automobiles--during the SAARS scare? A country for which George Orwell's 1984 seems, without irony, a blueprint of urban planning? (Big Brother is personified by North Korea's Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Il, whose image is ubiquitous, and who is worshipped as a god-on-earth by the North Korean people.)

      Gordon surely strategized to convince the North Korean bureaucracy that he, out of myriad potential documentarians, would be the one to make a fair-minded, judicious documentary about their country. And that's what he's done, although at a price of self-censorship. Orwell is never mentioned, as a start. There's nothing in the film about the nuclear buildup, North Korean prisons, the lack of civil liberties, or other obvious sore points of this hyper-Stalinist Communist state. Gordon does bring up the most notorious horror, that many North Koreans--hundeds of thousands?-- starved to death when, during a severe famine, their President for Life decided against foreign assistance. Gordon acknowledges the famine but, no different from a discreet North Korean, he stops short of blaming anyone. Things are better now, someone says. Kim Jong Il carries on.

      A State of Mind concentrates on two adolescent female gymnasts in intense training for the Mass Games, a socialist-realist extravaganza, a kitsch Olympic Games. Thousands of North Koreans do synchronous athletics in honor of Kim Jong Il, and with the desperate hope that he will see them perform. Gordon take us to the girls' rigorous gymnastic trainings, also follows them to school, and home.

      Why are these North Korean children studying English? That's a mystery: there's no traveling abroad! And how did their teacher, a fortyish woman with Anais Nin eyeliner, learn English herself? We move to a more rigid class, in Marxist ideology. Who do you think is the big enemy of North Koreans? We are! Americans! "They are maneuvering to stop our happy laughter," the citizenry are taught, and that our government schemes to attack Pyungyang. "We have to endlessly hate the US," someone explains.

      The two gymasts live in squat apartments in high-rise buildings, with too many relatives in too few rooms; but this could be in any country. As highly ranked athletes, the girls are granted by the state far far better domiciles than regular North Koreans. That's why their domestic life seems so familiar to westerners: i.e., parents insisting that homework be finished before their daughter can watch TV cartoons.

      Then it's off to bed, before the Orwell dawn: at 7 AM, the Workers' Siren screams "Get Up!" across Pyungyang.

(September, 2005)

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