“It was a land of evil, yet sacred as your mother’s womb.”
With those words on the screen, Soon-Mi Yoo’s documentary about North Korea begins. Songs from the North does not attempts to highlight an evil and oppressive North Korea with old and tired condemnations. Rather, it is a journey to further understanding what it is.
The film is a collage of footage filmed from South Korean director Soon-Mi Yoo’s visit to North Korea together with songs, shows and plays that were screened inside the country that include the filmmaker’s thoughts in between. Some of the footage is secretly filmed, including the words of authorities instructing those filming not to take photos.
The film does not depict an oppressed people but a people immersed in love with a “Father” figure whom we know to be sadistic. They are asked to endure suffering and forfeit their sense of self for the sake of the whole, but in reality the whole is never personified in any form other than Kim Il-Sung.
George Orwell's masterpiece, 1984 is about a man who resisted Big Brother until time, fear and brutality made him love him. The book leaves us hanging though, as we never get to see what happens to protagonist, Winston Smith after his transformation. Perhaps Songs from the North picks up where Orwell left off.
In one scene, a young boy denounces his father for choosing the south, he is shamed to tears as he accepts Kim Il- Sung as the father he never had. Officials in the room are moved to tears as the cameras zoom in on their reactions. It is disheartening to see a young boy full of shame because of his father’s choice. It was painful to see him deluded and trapped inside a narrative of propaganda. It was discomforting to see that the emotions on the screen were sincere. We laughed at their tears, but because they were genuine they evoked sadness.
The film offers various vantage points which help steer us from oversimplification. We are reminded that North Korea is a nation traumatised by colonialism pushed deeper into their trauma. The director proposes that perhaps the atrocities committed by the United States following colonisation were the straw that broke the camel’s back.
We see some of the images from modern day North Korea, a land that’s barren and lonely, like a place forgotten by time, filmed by a new camera. In this land, myths prevail, myths that are repeated incessantly until they have become a reality taking over people's lives so completely and utterly beyond hope of repair. The songs themselves are highly emotive, the music well produced and the performances full of passion.
The extreme sincerity of the North Korean population’s intensive love with their leader, Kim Il-Sung is unsettling. The songs spoke overly of Kim Il-Sung’s bosom, and his warm embrace. There was so much love for their leader and his embrace for their suffering which was accompanied by the false promise that things will get better. This promise includes the unrealistic dream of being reunited with South Korea. The dream accompanied by the false narrative that Kim Il-Sung saved them and continues to care for them. All that prevails are myths and a great love and glorification for a father-like figure. From the outside we see how deluded they are, but their own oblivion is the greatest tragedy.
Many seemed keen on attending this screening and a number of scenes were received with tense laughter, perhaps the result of drawing parallels to Egypt. The film raises many questions as to what creates unquestioning acceptance and generates that sort of love.
As we watch, we are reminded of our own myths and conspiracy theories, echoed in many corners. Some of the issues are a bit uncomfortable, like the tale of a prominent activist who resisted Japanese colonialism who was later accused of being a spy for imperialist America.
Delusions are perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film. With such entrenched delusions, there is the futility of hoping for an escape. Songs from the North is a cautionary tale, a window to what happens when a skewed narrative manages to win over the populace and when myths become ingrained into people's psyches. The real hero in this tale are the lies that still prevail.