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Melody Unwinding: A Conversation with Soon-Mi Yoo about "Songs From the North"

Adam Cook talks to the director of "Songs From the North", a new documentary that takes a different type of look at North Korea.

There are few greater enigmas to the outside world than North Korea, represented to us with sparse a limited set of images—most of them insufficient, be they from biased material, reductive documentaries, or the media. It’s an off limits, alien place. The result is that we can barely even begin to grapple with understanding it. In Songs From the North, director Soon-Mi Yoo has created over the course of three visits to North Korea a diary film that gives the viewer an invaluable, albeit brief and obstructed, view into another world. Mixed together with what she shot on site is archival footage of various musical performances, as well as excerpts from propagandistic cinema and television—blending together the nation’s reality with its façade, until there is hardly a line between them. The result is an increasingly ambiguous, incomplete portrait of an unknowable place, with an entirely different system of meaning, that contradicts the very way we look at the world. Having just premiered in Locarno where it won the Leopard for Best First Film, I was able to sit down and discuss the film and its subject with Soon-Mi Yoo. The film has its North American premiere at TIFF this weekend.


NOTEBOOK: I think the larger context of your personal relationship to North Korea is really important for the viewer. Can you talk about what ultimately motivated your visits?

SOON-MI YOO: When I was growing up in Seoul, North Korea was always there, in the discourse. The national narrative of the war and unification was always in our consciousness. My father often spoke about his wartime experience and the tragedy of the division of the country. And so, the interview with my father is really a continuation of long on-going discussions between us.

NOTEBOOK: So in a way the origin of the film lies in these conversations with your father?

YOO: Yes, exactly. Because this is the biggest drama Koreans have, this traumatic division, this separation. And South Koreans are not allowed to show certain footage and films from North Korea which means I will most likely not be able to show my film anywhere in South Korea. It is very strange. The North Koreans are our brothers but they are also our enemy. North Korean cinema was completely banned; Growing up I couldn’t see any films or hear any songs—except propaganda decrying North Korea. When I finally had a chance to go, my answer was “Of course!”. I’d seen documentaries about North Korea made by outsiders and they are all the same. They say North Korea is awful, its people brainwashed, but I just couldn't believe this one-sided and clearly biased vision of the North.

NOTEBOOK: You had to see it for yourself.

YOO: More than that. I actually did want to make something to counter all the propaganda, to make a film that actually shared real people, faces, and the actual culture of North Korea. That was the challenge that brought me North. In 1959 Chris Marker wrote a fascinating and illuminating photo essay book about North Korea with rare non-propaganda images. I encountered Marker's book, The Koreans, before I was a filmmaker and it remained a huge inspiration, especially for the innovative relationship between image and text and the powerful portraits of North Koreans. Marker’s book encouraged me to go in search of the beauty in North Korea. His images suggested far more than the “evil, communist dogs” I had been hearing about since I was a child.

NOTEBOOK: The film is, in part, a diary. The intertitles feel to me like observations one would write in their journal. Therefore, the film is a completely subjective glimpse, which really is all one can authentically present. 

YOO: Exactly. It is always tricky, when dealing with such loaded historical and political issues, to know exactly how much information you should provide without turning your film into a lecture, into something boring. But at the same time, you DO need some fundamental facts, or else the audience doesn’t have any ground to stand upon. That was a huge challenge that took me a long time to overcome. Some of my own text and ideas came to me as I was writing in my notebook flying home or working on the film. Some of the historical facts I worked very hard to distill to the bare minimum necessary. All of the facts in the film are filtered through my own understanding of the larger history.

NOTEBOOK: It’s a film that is in the process of figuring itself out as it goes along.

YOO: Yes, that accurately describes my film and how it happened. And to me this is the essence of the poetic essay form. Initially, I knew my process would be a kind of back and forth, with my research informing each of my next steps. At first, I thought I would include seven songs, but I didn’t like that structure, and I didn’t want anything that resembled a traditional three act structure. Structure was a huge open question. In the end the film took shape by spiralling forward, back and forth.

NOTEBOOK: There’s a very interesting contrast between the subjective dimension of your footage, your thoughts in the intertitles, and the North Korean footage taken from popular cinema and the many stage performances. There seems to be a performative aspect to North Korea. As if North Korea plays itself.

YOO: North Korea’s culture really is very performative. Part of this stems from the regime's understanding of how the arts can really affect change in people’s behavior and psychology. This is why the regime places such emphasis on the arts and propaganda, and above all cinema. North Korea is completely saturated with visual and performative art, albeit propaganda, from the huge murals and monuments to the songs and stage performances. Often times I was just trying to capture footage before the guides noticed me and I barely had time to register what I was filming. Sometimes I barely had time to get the image in focus!

NOTEBOOK: So it was when you returned to the images that they became real? 

YOO: While I was editing I realized just how full of songs and melodies almost all my footage was. Songs and music are a very distinctive part of North Korean culture, one way the regime holds up a mirror to show an ideal image of themselves. I actually found all the images of people in the cinema and performances in my film deeply touching, and striking. There is a remarkable craft and intense quality to the performances, the faces, the gestures, and the experience of hardships suffered. I was amazed to learn how hard the North Koreans work.

NOTEBOOK: I think that experience is synonymous with the viewer’s, it comes through like that. I sensed no judgement. Not exactly what we expect from most films on the subject…We’re used to filmmakers taking an immediate stance. I quickly realized we weren’t making criticism, but observing, investigating the how/why/what….which of course only leads to more questions…

YOO: To me this film is successful if it motivates people to find out more, to continue discovering North Korea. It is a kind of arrogance to declare you have an answer to a nation or culture. There was a John Ford called This is Korea, and while researching at the National Archive in Silver Spring, MD, I saw supplements to Ford's film, one which I include in the film. But I thought the title was so strange…How can you define Korea? I don’t know what Korea is and I’m Korean! And to assume I can provide some kind of answer would be naïve and arrogant.

NOTEBOOK: To connect this thread more so to contemporary cinema, there’s a disconcerting trend in which Western film critics and programmers covet films that present other nations as oppressive. You have these beloved films from China or Iran that show society as inherently bad. The overwhelming embrace of films with such views comes I think from a quasi-imperialist impulse to reinforce colonial consciousness.

YOO: I think that comes from a journalistic instinct, and they think it somehow bears more truth to scrutinize in that way. From documentaries I’ve seen by Westerners about North Korea, they are always looking for that, a sign that something’s wrong, and they’ll ask people there as if they think they’ll actually answer. Even if they feel disenchanted with society, as we do everywhere, they are not going to tell some journalist. North Korea is a family state, like it’s one big family. That’s the official idea, and people actually really believe it. Family is so important in Korean culture. If someone outside of the family is looking for dirt, they’re not going to present it. The journalists are completely ignorant of Korean culture. 

NOTEBOOK: I have to mention how struck I was by the ambiguous experience of watching this film. Not knowing how to feel, the balance between sincerity and artificiality is difficult to define. We see these elaborate performances that are so rehearsed and fake, and yet there’s such an emotion behind them that it becomes difficult to not be moved—which was not something I had expected. The most complex scene for me as a viewer is the melodramatic musical performance by the children. It’s so overdone, and yet you see people reacting in the audience, crying, and it’s impossible to make heads or tails of…I was left with no answers.

YOO: You cannot help but be moved by these children. They are crying, sobbing, and you feel for them. But at the same time you wonder what exactly they are doing…The whole scenario is so bizarre. When they start to sing while crying, it really breaks your heart. This feeling of emotional disorientation has been with me throughout the process of making this film. You have all these strange, conflicting emotions and difficulties about your own feelings. For me, North Korea is one of the few places in the world where you are confronted with your own emotions and your own most basic assumptions about the human condition. For me, freedom is what I have always assumed we all want. Why would you not want to be free? And yet the North Koreans manage, and go on. They simply have different priorities than of personal freedom. Your initial response is to think, “They are wrong!” You want to judge—but then I began to question my own assumptions. I don’t have any answers because these are not simple questions. These are metaphorical, philosophical questions about how to live in the world, how to be a good person and citizen, what is the meaning of life. Their way of life is a philosophy, an idea. An ideology hammered into their heads day and night, through loudspeakers, songs, cinema, painting—but these are highly demanding philosophical ideas. That’s why I think North Korea is so fascinating. No one wants to go there, but they persist—

NOTEBOOK: —completely challenges how we evaluate things.

YOO: Exactly. They believe in these ideas. No matter how deformed society can become, I look at the people and as a documentary filmmaker I have to realize this is how they think. It’s the Bazinian idea of self effacement in front of reality that’s in front of you, just looking it on a level and admitting I don’t understand you really, but I accept it.

NOTEBOOK: We don’t really see this in the film but did you see through those cracks, from the outside in? There’s one incredible scene with a man who is just sort of staring, and you capture this oddly emotional moment. However, it’s an image that’s impossible to penetrate; it’s a mystery for the viewer. Did you feel that or see through that?

YOO: The people in my films are human beings, so of course, you see through these cracks. Even one of the guides complained to me, “Gosh, we are trying so hard to push through this difficult revolution”. He acknowledged how hard it was to uphold this rigid stature to constantly be ordering us “Don’t do this! Don’t film that!”. They’re well aware of their hardship and struggle. In my film you glimpse the oxen carts used in the middle of winter. I saw how they carry heavy loads on their back, tree branches to heat their homes. Outside the cities, there are no cars, no buses. People walk, however long the distance. You just can’t imagine what it means to walk outside when it is -26°C. The guides try to shield this reality from visitors and they ask you not to film certain things, especially the military. But of course I had to because I’m a filmmaker and if I did nothing I wouldn’t have a film. When the guides asked me to stop filming, I stopped since I wanted to show them respect and since I understood they were just doing their job—but then I saw something else and I continued to film until told to stop. It was like this the entire time. But I was always looking with an empathetic gaze. Imagining what it is like to be them and to live in these conditions.

NOTEBOOK: Your footage gives us these fleeting moments, as if we are peering through blinds at something really interesting but I wonder, when the camera is off, and you’re still looking, did you still feel on the outside?

YOO: Of course. In truth I never really tried to be inside. It is simply not possible. And that wasn’t my aspiration. That kind of attitude or approach might get some North Koreans into trouble, which I didn’t want.

NOTEBOOK: What sort of consequences are there?

YOO: For me since I got in through personal connections, I was not that afraid. And even if you’re arrested, unless they really feel like you are a spy or something, they will generally just take your camera away. People have been detained, it’s not unheard of, but for the most part they let you out. That said, of course there are people who got detained and still in jail for their alleged “anti-government” activities.

NOTEBOOK: How did your feelings change over your three visits? How did your relationship evolve with the space?

YOO: It is complicated. My first entry was in the middle of a bitterly cold winter. It was so cold, I was colder than I've ever been before, and they don’t have enough energy to heat up even the hotel rooms. There are blackouts and a lot of problems. I wore all the clothes I brought everyday. That relentlessly harsh image of the place really stuck with me. It became a metaphor for the hardships endured by North Koreans. But in the end I understand some things a little more, and I understand some things a little less now. It is just complicated.

NOTEBOOK: Would you return?

YOO: I’m not sure. If they would let me in and guarantee that I could leave again, yes, perhaps. But they may not like some of the footage in my film. For example, at the very end of the film I take a photograph with a group of little girls. When the children invited me to join them, I was really surprised since this kind of encounter rarely happens in North Korea. Because my camera was left on, and I was focused on the children, and not looking through the viewfinder, in the background the statue of the Great Leader’s is crooked, his head cut off. That is a criminal offense in North Korea and unfortunately I don’t think they would like that very much.

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