Under the Sun is a documentary film that follows the story of eight-year-old North Korean schoolgirl Zin-mi Lee as she and her family are instructed by officials on how to be ideal patriots. Russian film-maker Vitaly Mansky was forced to shoot from a North Korean-written script with North Korean minders present at all times. He turns the tables on his overly-controlling minders with a simple artifice - he never turns off his camera. As Zin-mi prepares to celebrate the 'Day of the Shining Star', or the birthday of former supreme leader Kim Jong-il, under the watchful eyes of government handlers, Mansky keeps the camera rolling - and viewers soon realize the everyday lives of this ordinary family have been entirely staged.
Zin-mi's father, a journalist, was recast to work at an "exemplary garment factory." He was addressed as 'comrade engineer' by workers who rehearsed lines on-camera saying they had exceeded the factory quota by 150%. Government handlers asked for scenes to be redone while asking, "Why was the applause so weak?" In the next take the workers say they exceeded their quota by 200%.
Zin-mi's mother, a teacher, was instead filmed working at an "exemplary soy milk factory", where workers talk about helping to provide the population with "nutritious drinks". Zin-mi herself was filmed reciting memorized passages about the "Great Generalissimo" and "Great Leader Kim Il-sung" and how he single-handedly defeated the Japanese "scoundrels" in World War II and the American "scoundrels" in the Korean war. Cameras followed her as she was instructed to learn grueling dance routines, and caught her shedding a tear when she could not conjure up a scene of happiness on demand. At home, Zin-mi was filmed in front of a table overflowing with food, rehearsing lines fed to her and her parents over dinner about the importance of eating kimchi.
"You saw the young girl picking at the rice because she didn't know what to do with it laid out so sumptuously," said RAND Corporation's North Korea expert Bruce Bennett in a Q&A after the screening. "North Koreans don't eat like that," he said. "They don't eat like a tenth of that in most cases. Starvation still occurs in North Korea."
Mansky's camera lingers on the omnipresent pictures of the three generations of Kims who have run the country - Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and the current leader Kim Jong-un are everywhere. "They are trying to make it look like they're the "gods of North Korea," said Bennett. "There are shrines in every school, in every hospital and every public building to the Kim family...They've got to try to make it look like they really are justified leading a country which has a disaster going on."
The film captures stark and revealing scenes of everyday life in Pyongyang - workers digging up weeds around monuments with tweezers, passengers pushing electric buses stranded on city streets during one of the many power cuts, a woman trying to squeeze out a mop in a frozen river. Life is harsh, even in the capital Pyongyang, which is a city reserved only for the elites to live in.
In one long scene, the filmmakers keep a camera focused on the face of a young student who struggles to stay awake as an elderly veteran, his jacket covered with gold colored medals, drones on for over 40 minutes about fighting American "cowards" and his war stories. "I really felt sorry for a lot of the young people in this film who didn't exactly exemplify exactly what the regime would have wanted and may have well paid a serious price for that," said Bennett. "I worry that she may no longer be alive after this film is shown." In North Korea, Bennett added, if you have done something to disgrace the regime, 3 generations of the family will pay for that disgrace. North Korean prison camps at one point contained an estimated 200,000 people - one percent of the population. The annual death rates in the camps were about one in four.
On North Korea's nuclear program, Bennett said "every time North Korea does a nuclear weapons test it has representatives from Iran there so they are observing and who knows what else is going on." Bennett said their scientists visit Iran and Syria. "The scary part is if North Korea develops 50 or 100 nuclear weapons, they're going to figure they have enough to start exporting." He said they have made it very clear they have no intentions of ever giving up their nuclear weapons and "are building, as far as we can tell, significantly more over time." Bennett said that US policy towards North Korean currently amounts to little more than "strategic patience" and said the key is for the US to find ways to deter North Korea, especially any potential nuclear weapons tests. "We don't want them doing another test. They have to be convinced the price is too high to do any more tests."
Q&A with RAND Corporation's Bruce Bennett
On China, Bennett said North Korea and China may be allies but "they never train together, never plan together and they hate each other's guts." He also said that "almost all of the trade is with China... probably 90-95% of their trade," said Bennett. And while the Chinese periodically agree to sanction the North Koreans, they don't persist - partly because the Chinese region of Manchuria with neighbors North Korea is now a relative rust belt in China and depends on North Korean trade for part of its income.
On the future of Kim Jong-un, Bennett said that in his talks with defectors, they say that many of the elites realize he is not the person who should be the leader of the country and that the country needs policy changes. But with Kim Jong-un's reputation and track record - he has replaced his defense minister five times in a little over four years, several of them "executed brutally" - "they are scared to death of him."