A State of Mind - Daniel Gordon - UK 2004 - 94 mins
Viewed : International Documentary Film Festival - Amsterdam - November 2004
BBC/ARTE/WNET commission. Coming to a BBC channel - probably 4 - soon.
Ends justifying means - an old story. As far as I know this doc has only had limited screenings at film festivals. As a BBC commission it’ll be showing on TV soon and I hope anyone reading this crit will watch A State of Mind check it out and let me know what they think.
In the course of A State of Mind, the director who’s also the voice over commentator tells us not once, but twice, that the filmmakers negotiated with the North Korean authorities privileged access to film in North Korea without controls or censorship over what they might shoot. To say it twice was certainly not accidental. What was it he was wanting to tell us? Whatever it was my attention was drawn not to the implied ‘freedom’ of the film makers but to the restrictions and limitations endemic in shooting in a totalitarian state and how the film production company might respond to these restrictions and limitations.
In a totalitarian situation - whether it be a state like N Korea or a large multinational corporation - the very notion of ‘privileged access’ is problematic. Why can’t you have access without privilege? Privilege is the concomitant of one party’s control and the power to dispense favour. By definition unprivileged access is not permitted. Of what are the mighty ones who grant the privilege, frightened? Something that you might see; something you might hear? And suppose that there are things which ‘they’ are determined to conceal and that they don’t want you to see? How can you as filmmaker with privileged access know whether what you see and film is ‘real’ or in some way staged for your benefit? The resources and control of a totalitarian state are certainly capable of complex stagings.
Further if you film under conditions of privileged access, the implication is that this access has been traded for a relationship of trust with the party ceding this privilege. This very relationship of trust between the parties implies a certain kind of contract, often in the form of unspoken understandings about limits. In return for privilege the filming party often tacitly agrees not only to a degree of self censorship but also to refrain from asking certain types of awkward questions. In this case where the production company, VeryMuchSo Productions boasts a long term relationship with the regime and has plans to make a further documentary in North Korea I feel it of relevance to examine carefully the way A State of Mind has been made and to ask whether the film is characterised by an ingenuous collusion as a state of mind rather than the spirit of free enquiry.
The film is based on the instrumental premise that in following the progress of two young girl gymnasts through their training and selection programme leading up to the North Korean gymnastic mass games(the high point of the totalitarian leader worship bullshit), our understanding of this closed society demonised by the West, may be extended or even deepened. Further by experiencing through the mediation of film ordinary North Koreans living their ordinary lives we will also perceive something about the truth of human nature and universal values. Daniel Gordon seems to say: you see North Koreans are no different from us! They may say be prone to mouthing off propaganda and stuff about America but in fact human nature is the same everywhere and everywhere lots of young girls love gymnastics and dedicate themselves to its practice with the support of their families. These are folk living under a rather peculiar organised system of indoctrination - but just folks!
This is the message I received. But I need neither Walt Disney nor Gordon to inform me about human nature. In fact the issues in relation to people in North Korea or in Stalin’s USSR or Hitler’s Reich have nothing to do with the universal characteristics of human nature but with what is going on in this society that controls and contains people who look and act as if everything were normal? What is the nature and construct of these normal appearances? And what’s going on under the surface? What’s the crack - do people tell Great Perpetual Leader jokes? Do people know its all bullshit? Under what strains do North Korean people live out their lives? In the situation in which A State of Mind was produced, universal truths are no more than decontextualised platitudes, the resort to which is a ploy to disguise the fact that a film made under ‘privileged access’ in these conditions can only be either dishonest or banal or both. Either which way A State of Mind is a film that whilst pandering to the North Korean State by refusing to pose any questions about society, risks betraying its people. .
The choice of two young girls as drivers of the film narrative conforms with the compromised ambitions of this production. The idea is that in following the lithe flowing tumbling innocent bodies of these girl child gymnasts, a crack will open up in the monolithic wall of North Korean society which will allow us to peek in to see and meet the people. We are used to seeing young dedicated girl/woman child gymnasts. They are part of the TV furniture, moral tales of success through dedication. We have seen Olgas and Nadias, Dianes and Debbies going through their asexualised prenuptial Olympic routines on floor asymmetric bars vault and beam. We know them and we are also aware, because we have been told, of the abusive forces that sometimes lurk behind these bodies in flux. The spectre of mummydaddycoach in the various guises; twisted authority figures colonising young feminine bodies and minds in order to develop the necessary athletical synthesised bodies. It seems strange that Gordon should chose a practice involving a fascism of the body to lead us through the concentric circles of state totalitarianism.
A State of Mind would not be the first film to exploit young athletic bodies as a front for a totalitarian regime. It was the stock in trade device of German and Soviet documentary makers in the ‘30s. Leni Riefenstahl’s Olypische Spiele is the key example. I am not suggesting either that Gordon has her caliber as a director or shares any of her propagandist intentions - probably he simply wants to sell TV programmes. But whilst aware of these differences in motivation between the two, nevertheless some overlap in form and structure suggests itself. There is something about the flow of young bodies in agonistic display, in the fluidity of athletic intention and achievement that overwhelms and inundates context. That these perfectly balanced muscular yet frail frames filmed from tracks angles and unlikely rigs, images edited (with music often) to heighten aesthetic effect and deepen emotional affect, sweep away context and setting. In a way there is no time in these films only space that extends through an all encompassing present. Berlin 1936 is simply the collective spacial experience of bodies - most of whom happen to be German. The context of what the German state has become is rendered irrelevant by the imagery which seamlessly excludes the black star of the games Jesse Owen because of his blackness. This sort of effect works through A State of Mind - it is all place and no time. This is particularly evident in A State of Mind’s opening sequence which establishes the visual style of the film which is to look ‘good’ and beautifully shot. This opening sequence sets out its stall as having 35mm Hollywood production values with all that that connotes. In the opening sequence the picture fades up to a high key spot in a totally dark space to reveal in the cross fading spots the two young gymnasts dressed in leotards, as individually and then together they appear and disappear performing items of their routine. The edited cross fades between the two performers continue as they move nearer the camera. From the start A State of Mind is invested with the pure aesthetics of space.
Time and its ponderable considerations are as absent here as they are in the average travelogue.
If in some way Gordon thinks that he is parodying Riefenstahl, then I think the problem is that you can’t parody Riefenstahl. In Riefenstahl’s films where the fake distorted and dishonest is raised up to high heroic kitsch status, she is already a parody of herself.
A State of Mind presents as a glossy travelogue of a forbidden country fronted by cute gymnasts, perfect euro-fodder. But still there are things that bother me, and it’s all the in between bits(and there are quite a lot of them) where we see the home life of the two girl gymnasts. How to evaluate these sequences in the context that they are shot behind the closed walls of North Korea?
In the West the limits of fabrication(leaving out the often dubious nature of re-constructed events - with dialogue!) are in some ways defined ( as some producers for C4 have found out)by the openness of Western society and the fact that participants involved in filming any fabrication or faked sequences may spill the beans, revealing for example, that what purported to be a gang bang or fight, was an event staged for camera. At this point the disclosure that something framed as ‘real’ has been staged, castes any documentary as morally suspect and discredited. No such openness exists in North Korea.
Aside from these exterior discreditings, audiences can generally, but not always, within the flow of imagery purporting to be a documentary film( and at IDFA about 50% of the films purporting to be docs were composed primarily of reconstructed material - but that is another story) perceive or identify some traits events or items through which they can authenticate different aspects of a strip of action. Audiences by continuous reading of audio and visual cues can gauge respondents behavior and evaluate their replies to questioning.
In A State of Mind in order to know what is going on and whether to trust what we are shown, we are very much in the hands of the director and the translators. We don’t speak the language: we can’t read North Korean culture so we don’t have a language of gestures for looks glances stutters verbal glitches uncomfortable pauses and body. The problem is how do we evaluate what we are shown; even at the level of basic structural narrative components, how can we know that the things we view are true? Can we trust the judgment of the film makers that what they filmed were real strips of life? But perhaps all those family sequences are faked, perhaps the individuals purporting to be mummies daddies and grannies are actors…….suppose it’s all staged? Certainly many visitors to Stalin’s Russia came away with the impression that what they had seen was a real when they were witness to carefully staged pieces of theatre. The resources of the totalitarian state which has the ability to bring large numbers of discontinuous effects into play mean that the staged events can often be convincingly presented as real.
There is an interesting parallel here with people who want to investigate paranormal phenomena. Scientists, like film makers, look at what they see. Perhaps for this reason they have often shown themselves to be easy to fool into believing in performed paranormal effects. Magicians when looking at the same phenomena are not so much interested in what they see; rather they are interested in what they don’t see - underlying structures utilized for the practice of deceit. Film makers can be easy to fool because they often want to see what they are looking at: looking and seeing are conflated. In the film the girls are real gymnasts, but we have no way of knowing who they are - perhaps those claiming to be their families are in fact acting out these roles so that the state is controlling the staging of all events. (acting normal, appearing to be normal when acting familiar roles is simple and something most people are capable of doing)
My suspicions about how to frame what I was looking at started when I watched the sequences of the families eating: I wondered about the good food that was going into their mouths. We know North Korea has had severe food shortages(this is admitted in the film) but was the food the people were eating provided as imagery for the Western camera, special food provided as part of the staging of normal appearances? And the apartments where the families lived with their carpets and wood wall panels? Were these normal every day appurtenances or part of a set for the camera to film?
The fact that the families in their homes looked so real on film draws attention to the latent problems in looking for signs of authentication. Those features of a situation which we may judge most difficult to fake are precisely the ones which those seeking to deceive will take the greatest pains to faithfully replicate. Although many may think the above points are far fetched, a totalitarian system such as North Korea has the means and the perhaps the motivation to carry through such devices. And film makers should be aware that in closed systems either capitalist or communist nothing is necessarily what it seems.
I was left unconvinced by A State of Mind that from the point of view of veracity, that it is a worthwhile project to shoot in North Korea in the way exemplified by this film. Privileged access is really just a smoke screen through which you peer into the mirrors of distorted reality with no way of knowing what is going on.
Adrin Neatrour 8th Jan 05