JAY SEO WRITES – When I first heard about the documentary Under the Sun, I assumed that the filmmaker used a hidden camera to catch a glimpse of the real lives of citizens in North Korea. I was wrong: Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky was permitted by North Korean authorities to film a propaganda documentary – but the exercise turned out to have a surprise ending.

Mansky agreed to include only scenes that North Korean authorities wanted to show in the film — the school, the performance stage, the factory, the hospital, and the Zin-Mi’s house. He used raw footage and on-screen text to tell the story. Authorities chose the locations and performances to film in order to be portrayed as ideal patriots, and North Korean minders accompanied them at all times to give directions to the people.

Interestingly, Mansky kept his camera rolling, even while the minders gave directions, capturing every detail, from the forced smiles of people being filmed to Zin-mi’s tears during an interview. And this is how this North Korean propaganda film backfired on the regime. From the looks of Under the Sun, citizens of North Korea are oppressed from their very childhoods to meet the ideals of North Korean society.

Under the Sun focuses on the story of 8-year-old Zin-mi, who recently became a member of the Korean Children’s Union on the birthday of former leader Kim Jong-il. Even though Zin-Mi goes to the best school in North Korea, she struggles to cope with the country’s uniformly oppressive ideology. Perhaps the most revealing part of this documentary is the unusually revealing look into North Korea’s school system: In a history class, Zin-mi learns about North Korea’s victories against the Japanese, who are called the “aggressors,” and the Americans, who are called the “cowards.”

The school also teaches that landowners are bad people and brainwash the children into believing the dynastic Kim leaders are godlike figures.

Toward the end of the documentary, the filmmaker asks Zin-Mi what she thinks of her own country and about the Children’s Union. Zin-Mi tears up quietly. The interviewer tells Zin-Mi, “Don’t cry, but think of something that makes you happy,” and she says, “I don’t know.” The documentary ends with one big question: Are people in North Korea really optimistic about the future of their country?

I would say this: Under the big movie set in Pyongyang, almost everything was so controlled — including the “happiness” of the North Korean people.