Documentary following two young North Korean gymnasts and their families for eight months in the preparations for the Mass Games, a choreographed socialist realism spectacular.
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a British documentary crew followed two North Korean schoolgirls
as they prepared for that year's Mass Games.
Mass Games are North Korea's socialist realism extravaganza
and a perfect example of the state's ideology
the subordination of the individual's desires to the needs of the collective.
Throughout the year, North Korea was the focus of negative world attention,
as its nuclear policy was condemned worldwide.
At a time when North Korea's distrust of the outside world was at its highest,
the film crew was granted unparalleled co-operation from the authorities.
There were guides and interpreters present at all times, but they neither interfered,
nor sought to censor the material.
For the first time ever, North Korea, the secret state,
would reveal itself to outsiders.
Pyongyang, North Korea's capital.
A harsh winter is almost at an end, but it's February
and minus eight degrees.
As there is negligible indoor heating here, the children of Pyongyang remain on winter holiday.
But for an elite group of gymnasts, there is no time for play,
only for training.
The Mass Games club trains daily for a minimum of two hours.
TEACHER SINGS IN KOREAN
Pak Hyon Sun is 13 years old.
She has been a member of the Mass Games club for four years.
Scenes of collective training can be found all over Pyongyang.
Each Mass Games unit is striving to attain the state's desire - to cultivate the group mentality.
Since the formation of The Democratic People's Republic of Korea in 1948,
the state has imposed an all-encompassing belief structure on the people.
The placement of Mass Games within this structure has never been more significant.
For the participants, it enforces submission to the group.
For the audience, it is an inspiration to behold the values of teamwork
and the glory of the state and the leader.
In the West, North Korea is condemned as a repressive and totalitarian state.
Yet here, the high level of discipline is imposed
by the perceived threat from the outside world.
It's their struggle to build a strong country under its own principles.
Everything centres around the worship of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994,
and his son and successor Kim Jong Il, the General.
For these girls, the Mass Games are an obsession that governs their life.
Their driving force is to be good enough to be selected for the final performance,
which will be viewed by the General.
Hyon Sun has experienced Mass Games in the presence of the General on three occasions.
TEACHER SHOUTS INSTRUCTIONS IN KOREAN
In Korea, the family is the strongest unit,
yet nothing transcends the passion and devotion shown for the leaders.
To celebrate February 16th, the General's birthday,
everyone in North Korea is granted a day's holiday. For Hyon Sun, this is a day of rest.
Hyon Sun's group is training for the next Mass Games,
which are due to be held in July, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the Korean War -
a war known in the West as the Forgotten War,
in North Korea, as the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War.
An estimated four million people, many of them civilians, were killed in the three-year war,
and to this day, Korea has remained divided.
The near flattening of the north by American bombers has left a deep mark on North Korean psyche.
Hatred of the US is immortalized in Mass Games and is ingrained in everyday life.
As war looms in Iraq, America openly talks of a war on two fronts,
implying Iraq and North Korea.
Pyongyang is just over 100 miles from the 37,000 US troops based in South Korea.
Hyon Sun's daily life is disrupted by preparations for an American attack on the city.
Officially, North Korea is divided into three classes
the workers, the peasants, and the intellectuals - who are seen as equals in society.
Hyon Sun's family is from the workers' class - her father is a driver for a government ministry,
her grandfather is a construction worker, mother and grandmother are housewives.
Housing is allocated by the state.
Pyongyang is not representative of North Korea it is the showcase capital.
For its two million residents, it's considered a privilege to live here.
RADIO IS ON
State radio is piped to every kitchen in the block.
Listeners can turn the volume down, but not off.
The apartment has two bedrooms -
one for Hyon Sun, one for her parents.
Her grandparents sleep on the floor where the family is eating.
Hyon Sun's television is a gift from the state,
a reward for her performance in the Mass Games of 2002.
There is only one channel.
It broadcasts propaganda news, films and entertainment for five hours per day.
Mass Games have been performed in North Korea since 1946.
The next Mass Games will be the 120th.
Up to 80,000 gymnasts are used in the floor display.
The participants know that the slightest individual mistake on their part
could damage the group's performance.
They therefore surrender to the group, and in this way,
the performers become ideologically prepared, thus becoming true Communists.
The backdrop of the Mass Games, which details North Korea's achievements
and the country's revolutionary history,
is a huge mosaic, covering a whole side of the stadium.
The Korean's declare it to be the biggest picture in the world.
Images of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il must be portrayed with total devotion.
The backdrop works according to signals from the backdrop conductor
who is on the opposite side of the stadium.
Up to 12,000 schoolchildren are used.
Each school practises daily until perfection is achieved.
Performed in 2002, Arirang was the most stunning of all Mass Games.
Almost 200 million man hours were spent preparing and performing the show.
In all, the 90 performances over a four-month period
were viewed live by four million people.
Kim Song Yon is 11 years old and has performed in two Mass Games.
Her family is from the intellectual class.
Her father is a physics lecturer at Kim Il Sung University.
Her mother is a housewife.
She has two older sisters,
one is 15 and a high school student,
the eldest is 18, a high school graduate who will shortly be joining the Army.
Song Yon's sisters have a room each, her parents sleep on the floor.
Song Yon sleeps in a different sister's room each night.
Hyon Sun is the best gymnast for her age and discipline.
As group leader, she is expected to help improve the skills of others.
Much of April is spent preparing to celebrate Kim Il Sung's birthday.
The two-day holiday will begin on the 15th.
The years following Kim Il Sung's death coincided with a great degree of hardship in North Korea,
a period that has become known as the Arduous March.
No-one will know the true number of deaths from starvation during this time,
and even in Pyongyang there was no escape from the misery.
Most analysts predicted an implosion of the country and the system.
In the West, the continued food crisis is blamed on the state's isolation policy
and its outdated agricultural system.
In North Korea, it is seen as a period of struggle,
but one the people have to accept in order to continue the state's policy
of self-reliance and independence.
Song Yon's mother was the first North Korean citizen
to speak to a foreigner on the record about the Arduous March.
To mark April 15th, rations are increased.
Normally, the citizens of Pyongyang are entitled to one chicken and five eggs per person per month.
Although the food situation has greatly improved in Pyongyang, it is still a precarious situation
for most civilians, with much of the population reliant on foreign aid.
Malnutrition is now the biggest threat to the next generation of North Koreans.
The performance is three months away and the intensive daily training is taking its toll on the girls.
They have overslept and are late for roll call.
CALL AND RESPONSE CHANTING
LOUD EXCITED CHATTERING
'Hello. I have good news.
-Our class will go to the movies this afternoon.
-'Will they show a good film?
-They will show an interesting film.
'Will our teacher come with us?'
ALL: Will our teacher come with us?
-'Yes, he will.'
-ALL: Yes, he will.
-How will you spend your next holiday?
-I will go to the swimming pool.
-Wonderful! Can you swim?
-Of course. I'm a good swimmer.
-Should I come with you?
-Yes, let's go together.
-Will your sister come, too?
-No, she won't.
I've been teaching English for five years.
Good translation. Next, the third sentence is...?
Song Yon, she is good, but in study she is not very good.
She spends a lot of time practising her skill in the sports club.
In comparison with other students
she does not spend a lot of time studying, so she is not very good in study,
but she is quite good enough, not very bad.
E - east.
W - west.
So the first letters make up - news.
After a two-hour lunch break, it's time for training.
The schedule is intensifying.
If they are to make the final performance in front of the General,
the group must reach the standard required.
Previous experience of Mass Games is no guarantee of selection.
By the time Hyon Sun arrives home from training,
it's seven in the evening, six hours after school has finished.
ACCORDION MUSIC PLAYS
Even in the central district of Pyongyang, the most important area of the city,
most nights are spent without electricity at some point in the evening.
It's Sunday - the official day of rest in Pyongyang.
THEY SING IN KOREAN
After their picnic, Song Yon and her family plan to visit the flower exhibition,
which is devoted exclusively to two breeds of flower
the Kim Il Sungia and the Kim Jong Ilia.
SHE SINGS IN KOREAN
Baghdad has fallen to the Americans four days earlier,
but there has been no official reporting of this in the state media.
Kim Il Sung's birthday is the most important day in the North Korean calendar.
Three years of national mourning followed his death in 1994.
In 1997, he was declared Eternal President.
The whole country will have a two-day holiday.
For Song Yon, that means two days off from training.
Song Yon spends April 15th with her parents, at a co-operative farm 30 miles outside Pyongyang.
All North Koreans require a permit to travel outside their towns of residence.
It takes the family half a day to make the journey.
The farm is home to a friend of Song Yon's father from their days in the Korean People's Army.
It has been ten years since the veterans last met.
To commemorate Kim Il Sung's birthday, there is a fete in the village.
Teams from different farm units compete for the three prizes
their choice of pig, sheep or goat.
It is here in the countryside, even just 30 miles outside Pyongyang,
that the hardships of recent years have been felt the most.
Throughout their adversity,
North Koreans continued to be driven by the country's guiding philosophy of Juche -
that man is responsible for his own destiny.
In essence, Juche preaches self-reliance.
There is no knowing when these comrades will next meet.
At this time, Asia is gripped by the SARS epidemic.
Worst affected is Beijing, Pyongyang's main point of contact with the outside world.
Even though North Korea is served by just six international flights per week, the state is alarmed.
As a result of the threat of SARS,
North Korea becomes the only country in the world to completely seal its borders.
No-one knows when North Korea will reopen.
North Korea is the last country to lift SARS restrictions,
even though it has had no confirmed cases of the virus.
It opens three weeks after the outbreak is declared over.
The authorities have postponed the July Mass Games. They will be held in September
to commemorate 55 years of the founding of the Republic.
For Song Yon, there has been a major change in the dynamics of family life.
The schools have broken up for the summer,
and despite the postponement, there is no respite from practice.
Every detail of the September performance has been finalised,
and now it is up to each group to hone their moves to perfection.
SHE GIVES INSTRUCTIONS
For the ten weeks prior to the performance, practice will be held all day,
from eight in the morning until six in the evening with two hours break for lunch.
With less than two months to go to the performance,
the girls' practice area is relocated to the Pyongyang Indoor Gymnasium,
where the actual performance will be held.
All the disciplines of Mass Games will practise here.
Each group is driven hard to ensure they achieve the standard required.
Even experienced gymnasts like Hyon Sun, who has three Mass Games to her credit,
are beginning to feel the pressure.
There is no room for sentiment. The organisers are unhappy with the quality of the Torch Girls.
TORCH GIRLS SING
Shortly after being filmed, these girls were informed that,
having failed to reach the standard, they would be replaced by boys.
The postponement of the Mass Games presents Hyon Sun and Song Yon
with a chance of a life-changing experience -
a trip to Mount Paekdu, a 31-hour train ride from Pyongyang.
The girls are accompanied by a revolutionary history teacher from their school.
Mount Paekdu is considered holy to all Koreans, both North and South.
In legend, the Korean nation was born out of Mount Paekdu's volcanic Lake Chon.
Every North Korean is expected to make the pilgrimage to Mount Paekdu at some point in their lives.
SHE SPEAKS KOREAN
The girls return to Pyongyang in time for July 27th.
Considering it is the 50th anniversary
of what is seen as a great victory over an imperialist aggressor,
Pyongyang is strangely muted.
Kim Il Sung's statue is the focus of remembrance,
as it was he who led the nation through the war.
Pride of place goes to a bouquet sent personally by his son, Kim Jong Il.
The city bursts into life that evening,
as 30,000 adults dance on Kim Il Sung square
Yet there seems little to celebrate.
50 years on from the war, a peace treaty has never been signed.
Korea remains divided - the North is still seen as a pariah in the western world
and the Korean peninsula continues to live with the threat of catastrophic war.
Central Pyongyang awakens to loudspeakers playing revolutionary music.
The whole of the city, two million people,
has been mobilized for the September 9th celebrations,
which commemorate 55 years of the founding of the Republic.
The celebrations will be of epic proportions.
On September 9th, there will be a military parade
followed by a people's parade, both reviewed by Kim Jong Il.
At night there will be dancing on Kim Il Sung Square and a youth torchlight parade.
The Mass Games themselves will take place the following day, on September 10th.
An estimated one million people
will take part in the three parades of the day.
In North Korea, the parades are the ultimate display of strength, unity, loyalty and devotion.
Although the images of the Parade will be transmitted worldwide,
the target audience is internal. The Parade reinforces the power of the collective.
It is also the biggest opportunity for the people of North Korea
-to see and pay homage to their Leader.
-REVOLUTIONARY MUSIC PLAYS
As they march past, they cry "Mansei!" which means "Long Live!"
At the climax of the two hour spectacle, all eyes turn to one man.
Only state officials are allowed to film Kim Jong Il, and when he comes to the balcony,
security personnel try to prevent even a snapshot.
The celebrations are far from over. There is still a youth torchlight parade to come,
and dancing on Kim Il Sung Square.
And tomorrow is the first performance of Mass Games.
PARADE MUSIC ON TELEVISION
In less than 14 hours' time, it will be Hyon Sun's turn to perform in front of the General.
Watching the parades, which are constantly repeated on TV,
are an inspiration to her and reinforce her will.
It's seven in the morning, four hours before the performance.
This is the biggest day of the girls' lives.
It's 8.30am, two and a half hours before the performance.
Every available area, outside and in, is used for last minute preparations.
Hyon Sun and Song Yon's performance
is the 11th chapter of a 13-part revolutionary story.
Their chapter is entitled "Our country, which is glorified with independence."
Each of the 6,000 performers is synchronised to the group,
each group to its chapter and each chapter to the whole.
Everyone will act as one, an embodiment of the Juche philosophy of self-reliance.
The performance is entitled "Army First Korea" and will last for 45 minutes.
Kim Jong Il is unable to attend.
Song Yon will perform in the second row,
a huge privilege for an eleven year old.
MUSIC: "Silence" by Delerium
# Give me release
# Witness me
# I am outside
# Give me peace... #
# ..When the rage in me subsides
# In this white wave I am sinking... #
For Hyon Sun, this is her proudest moment.
She will be in the centre of the front row - the pivotal figure of the act.
The honour could not be greater. This is her chance to prove herself to be a perfect Communist.
# ..In this silence, I believe
# I can't help this longing
# Comfort me
# I can't hold it all in
# If you won't let me
# Heaven holds a sense of wonder
# And I wanted to believe
# That I'd get caught up
# When the rage in me subsides
# In this white wave
# I am sinking
# In this silence
# In this white wave
# In this silence, I believe
# I have seen you
# In this white wave
# You are silent
# In this white wave
# I am sinking
# In this silence
# In this white wave
# In this silence, I believe
# I have seen you in this white wave
# You are silent
# You are breathing In this white wave
# I am free! #
THEY SING TRIUMPHANT SONG
Subtitles by BBC Broadcast 2004
E-mail us at [email protected]
Documentary following two young North Korean gymnasts and their families for over eight months in the preparations for the Mass Games, a choreographed socialist realism spectacular involving a cast of thousands in the biggest and most elaborate human performance on earth.
The film provides a rare glimpse into one of the world's least known societies. North Korea is sealed off from outside influences. It borders China and Russia to the north, and to the south there is a 4km wide impenetrable border with South Korea. The country follows its own communist ideals, a strict philosophy known as the Juche Idea wrapped around the worship of the Kim dynasty - Kim Il Sung, their Eternal President who died in 1994 but remains Head of State, and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, known as the General.
The crew began filming in February 2003 and had unique access to the families' day-to-day life, and have created a remarkable insight into a part of North Korean society never before seen by Western eyes.