Interview with Daniel Gordon, the filmmaker of three North Korean documentaries, A State of Mind, Game of their Lives and Crossing the Line.
Is it possible to make a film that doesn’t, in some sense, take sides? How can you ameliorate this situation?
DG: I feel I don’t take sides, and you know you’re doing something right when people from both extremes complain that you favor the other one too much! For me, I generally set the scene, let the film play out, and let the audience decide. If they take from it something different than my personal view, that’s fine.
How do you deal with events that you suspect would not take place had the camera not been present? (This isn’t endemic to North Korea, of course, the camera always changes things.)
DG: By and large, I’m confident that much of the stuff we shot in North Korea was accurate, and reflected society in Pyongyang. This has been confirmed to us by trusted sources in and out of the DPRK and also by defectors who say it’s an accurate portrayal of life in Pyongyang (not life outside Pyongyang, but we never make that claim). We shot so much stuff that we could weed out what we suspected was being played to the camera. For A State of Mind, in particular, the apartments were so small that, by and large, the cameraman and I were left to our own devices. We filmed observationally for hours on end, only finding out later what was said or how scenes could play out in the film. That was a major advantage for us in that we didn’t go back and forth with questions and interpreters; we just sat there and watched. After a while, you do become invisible.
Also in A State of Mind, there seems to be so much food in the family’s homes. Did you get the sense that this was put on at all?
DG: Often, especially at the beginning of filming, there was food provided for the filming crew as well, and due to time constraints, we had to film right there and then. So they piled the food on the table and there would be enough for a dozen, though only five would be filmed eating.
On closer inspection, there is not a great deal of food out—basic soup (with a minute amount of meat in there), a bit of beef wrapped in lettuce, some rice of course—certainly not the banquet it appears to be.
Throughout the year we often turned up unannounced and uninvited just to make sure things were not prepared for us in advance, and they went out of their way to give us food then too, very much in the hospitable fashion of the Koreans. I don’t know how much you have travelled, but certainly in my experience, the poorer people seem to be more generous in terms of hospitality.
The families learned to tone it down a bit the more we filmed, and I am sure the excess was paid for by the state film company, not by them personally. Also in the film, we do a shopping trip with one of the mums and she states how much chicken and eggs they receive per person/family per month. It’s hardly ostentatious.
Since our film trips for A State of Mind, both Nick [Bonner] and I have been in enough private homes to know that the type of food served in A State of Mind is typical of a normal Pyongyang household, even if the quantities shown were a touch excessive.
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