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It’s no secret that some documentary films are either partly or largely staged. Think of Errol Morris’s re-enactments; think of the fake archival footage in Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell; think of documentary granddad Robert Flaherty casting and concocting scenarios for Nanook of the North. That these strategies can also be apt, essentially accurate, and foundationally truthful is a paradox as old as the nonfiction form. Yet there’s some next-level complexity and audacity to Under the Sun, a seemingly true — or at least truly revealing — record of faked reality.
The gambit is as good as it gets. Hoping to shoot a documentary about Zin-mi, an eight-year-old North Korean girl, Ukrainian-born filmmaker Vitaly Mansky goes along with the terms laid out by the state: He’s issued a shooting script, instructed on where and how to film, made to submit footage for review, and, as described in a subtly arch text, “kindly” saddled with a “round-the-clock escort service.”
Mansky’s parry isn’t to subvert these rules, but rather to underscore them. By letting the camera roll before and after shots, Mansky shows us Zin-mi’s parents studying their lines and gamely pretending to work at jobs devised by the script; we also see the black-clad “escorts” coaching the cast through multiple takes, even calling “action” and “cut.”
Though there’s something inherently satisfying about seeing propaganda de-pantsed, Mansky has something greater to offer than easy irony. Because just as it’s no secret that documentary footage can be staged, neither is it news that socialist realism is an elaborately orchestrated crock. We expect to see impressive arrays of identically uniformed citizens within vast public squares. We expect to hear ludicrous origin tales of a young Kim Il-sung hurling a magic stone to defend his motherland from “Japanese aggressors” and “American scoundrels.”
What makes these non-revelations draw blood is the sadness and simmering rage gathered at the margins of this Soviet-raised filmmaker’s frame. From grandiose government buildings and marbled metro stations to the ubiquitous, Stalinesque wall decoration of Kims Il-sung and Jong-il, Mansky visually rhymes Pyongyang with Moscow. And much as in Potemkin villages of yore, there are real people toiling behind and supporting the façade. Culled from fleeting cutaways, Mansky’s footage shows citizens exercising, queuing, schlepping, and, memorably, pushing an unmoored cable car back into the clear.
Mansky communicates much within a limited terrain, but his master maneuver is to train his sights on a still-sincere little girl. Repeatedly, the camera pushes in for a close-up of Zin-mi’s face and keeps rolling, registering spontaneous flickers of boredom, fear, self-doubt, and humiliation over a series of interminable shots. Obliged to learn a dance routine before the annual Day of the Sun, she strains and sobs through a rigorous practice then grows disconsolate. Suddenly the director’s voice intervenes for the first time.
“Tell her everything will be all right,” he tells her teacher, symbolically commingling his Russian voice with their Korean while also conveying a sentiment as rehearsed and unrealistic as theirs. Throughout Under the Sun, he lies to them, they lie to us, and everything collapses around a little star who may be sheltered from such deception but still feels the cost.
Under the Sun
Directed by Vitaly Mansky
Opens July 6, Film Forum