Issue 53 (2016)

Vitalii Manskii: Under the Sun (V luchakh solntsa, Russia, DPRK, Germany, Czech Republic, Latvia, 2015)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks© 2016

under the sunUnder the Sun tells the heart-warming story of a typical North Korean family: beautiful, happy, well-fed and enthusiastic supporters of the supreme leader, Kim Jong-Un. Or so Vitalii Manskii’s North Korean co-directors intended. However, Manskii recorded the film on a camera with two SD cards, and when the North Koreans insisted on editing his footage daily to produce the required narrative, Manskii handed over one copy of his footage, but secretly retained a second revealing the whole process of manipulation the film had been subjected to. While the result is a film that succeeds both in commenting insightfully upon North Korea and doing so in a way that draws on the greatest traditions of the art of documentary, at the same time it raises ethical questions about the fate of the film’s subjects that have dogged its reception.

As a work of political commentary, Manskii’s film is about the staging of the clichéd image of propaganda, where the North Korean director scripts and rehearses not only the propaganda set pieces celebrating the overfulfilling the plan by 150 per cent in the first take and 200 per cent in the second, but even the family’s casual dinner-time conversation about the health benefits of kimchi. The picture that emerges is one in which, through the fate of the family’s daughter, Zin-Mi, who is about to enter the Children’s Union Communist Youth Movement, we observe the formation of the North Korean ideological subject, as she grows in competence at performing according to the set script.

under the sunAt the same time as exploring the theme of scripting on a political level, Under the Sun also invites viewers to reflect upon the conventions and language of documentary film, in which scripting and staging have long dominated the form. When writing his 2005 manifesto for ‘real cinema’, it was precisely these kinds of conventions Manskii was trying to get away from. Indeed, the manifesto’s first rule is that there be no ‘scenario’ (Manskii, 2005). Thus, when we see the repeated scenes, and the Korean co-director’s directions as to how and when to laugh correctly, we reflect on the deceptive nature of the filmic medium itself, just as we do with Dziga Vertov’s masterpiece, Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, 1929). Even though Manskii’s studio is named after Vertov, it is sometimes hard to see the connection between his recent thoughtful and artful, but rarely formally daring films, such as Patria o muerte (Rodina ili smert’, 2011) (Alpert 2012), or Pipeline (Truba, 2013). In its form, Under the Sun, however, most resembles Vertov’s reflexive, avant-garde filmmaking, especially in the way its reflexive construction is part of the political analysis. Yet for all these merits, it is the ethical dilemma posed by Under the Sun that has provoked the most heated discussion.

Writing for the government publication, Rossiiskaia gazeta, former Minister of Culture and head of the Federal Agency for Culture and Filmmaking, Mikhail Shvydkoi, posed the ethical question as to the fate of the film’s subjects following the film’s acclaim at the Black Nights film festival in Tallinn, Estonia:

For me, someone who has lived the greater part of his life in the USSR, it was pretty easy to work out the subsequent, post-festival screening sequence of events, simply by analogy with my own experience. Let’s imagine that in the place of Manskii there had been an American documentary filmmaker, and his co-directors were those in charge of the Central Studio of Documentary Films or the Leningrad Newsreel Studio. Even in the fairly restrained stagnation period all participants of the process would have inevitably been punished. V. Manskii knows better than I do the fate that awaits the subjects of his film and his North Korean co-producers.
Dostoevsky was convinced that universal harmony should not be bought at the cost of the tears of a child, the same applies, even more so to a documentary film, even one adored by the critics. Of course V. Manskii is not Boris Godunov, but I think he too will have problems sleeping at night (Shvydkoi 2015).

under the sunResponding to the implication that the co-directors and subjects of his film, including the 8 year-old Zin-Mi, have been arrested and shot, Manskii’s first line of defense is that while this might have happened, anything can happen in North Korea, and the logic behind such decisions and punishments is impossible to second-guess or influence. As an illustration of the arbitrary and unreasonable nature of the North Korean legal system, Manskii gives the example of the law that one is not allowed to film any images of the country’s leaders in which shadows appear, yet this is almost impossible since the images are everywhere. Thus, many of the images they took for Under the Sun were cut for this reason.

Manskii has also adopted a second line, which is ultimately more persuasive. He claims that he was not allowed to make the film he had agreed in advance with the North Koreans, and that, instead, the North Koreans associated with the film were foisted upon him, against his will. Backed into a corner, and forced to make a film that was no longer his own, Manskii stated that he felt bound for “cinematographic and civic reasons” to share what he saw and experienced with the world. Making the analogy with the infamous 1934 trip to the White Sea Canal labor camp, where Soviet writers wrote to extol the virtues of the murderous Stalinist Gulag, Manskii said he was not willing to defend the Gulag, and thus made a film critical of North Korea (Manskii 2015).

under the sunThe Soviet-North Korea, or even Russia-North Korea analogies were evidently an important factor in Manskii’s choice of subject for this film, and Giuliano Vivaldi has highlighted the theme of exploring the last days of socialism as one of the key thematic strands in Manskii’s work (Vivaldi 2014). The criticism leveled at Manskii by Shvydkoi, by so influential a figure, in such an authoritative publication, suggested that the North Koreans demanded the criticism, and that the Russian government wanted to send a signal about how important North Korea is to it. At the North Koreans’ request, the Ministry of Culture has apparently now removed the Russian Federation from the titles of the film (Manskii 2015). For Manskii, all of this is a confirmation that the analogy is accurate, and, having permanently relocated to Latvia during the course of making Under the Sun, taking his annual Artdokfest film festival with him, Manskii now asserts that politics in Russia is following a North Korean or Zimbabwean scenario (Manskii 2015).

under the sunWhether or not this is the case, and the film can do little more than invite reflection and comparison, certainly the Russian viewer (who will have few opportunities outside film festivals and the internet to see the film) will notice many similarities between the monumental public architecture of Pyongyang and that of Moscow, especially the metro and Stalin-era high-rise buildings. But that similarity does not just invite a political comparison. Rather, it is part of an attempt to get the viewer to see the North Koreans as something other than the ideological automatons that their own films project, a perspective that the conscientious analysis of the more recent The Propaganda Game (dir. Alvaro Longoria, Spain, 2016) does little to overcome. Due to the Vertov-inspired, “caught off-guard” technique, what Under the Sun offers, through the silences and unrehearsed moments in the lives of its subjects, is а sense of the North Koreans as human beings and not just ideological automatons. We feel genuine sympathy and attachment to Zin-Mi, in particular, especially as she cries in frustration at not being able to get her performance right, and with the tension of joining the Children’s Union, presented as a coming-of-age, and assuming adult ideological responsibility for her words and actions. It is for this reason that the thought that the Korean subjects, and Zin-Mi in particular, may have suffered as a result of the film, is so chilling, and so profoundly clouds our perception of it.

under the sunHaving attracted intense critical interest, high praise, a number of prizes at festivals and no small amount of opprobrium since its debut on the film festival circuit in 2015, in July 2016 Under the Sun will achieve the unprecedented breakthrough for Manskii, of a cinematic release in the USA. President Obama has suggested that the North Koreans are likely to react even more strongly to a documentary film about life there than they did to the 2014 comedy, The Interview:

We cannot have a society in which some dictator some place can start imposing censorship here in the United States because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don’t like (Laughland and Rushe 2014).

If Obama is right, and the screenings of Under the Sun generate further controversy and diplomatic tension with North Korea (and probably Russia too), then Manskii will not only enjoy greater exposure, but will also find himself under greater critical and ethical scrutiny than ever before. None of this would have happened if he had only told the heart-warming story of a typical North Korean family: beautiful, happy, well-fed and enthusiastic supporters of the supreme leader, Kim Jong-Un.

Jeremy Hicks
Queen Mary University of London

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Works Cited

Alpert, Erin (2012). “Patria o muerte,” Kinokultura, 35.

Laughland, Oliver and Dominic Rushe (2014).  “Sony pulling The Interview was ‘a mistake’ says Obama,” The Guardian 20 December.

Manskii, Vitalii (2005). “Real’noe kino, Manifest

Manskii, Vitalii (2015). “Dialog Vitalii Manskii–Daniil Dondurei: Intellektualy i vlast’,” Otkrytaia biblioteka. (November).

Shvydkoi, Mikhail (2015). “Vyzyvaiu ogon’ na sebia,” Rossiiskaia gazeta. 17 November.

Vivaldi, Guiliano (2014) “A (Re-)Emerging Cinema: New Forms of Documentary in Post-Soviet Russia,” Bright Lights Film Journal, 6 August.

Under the Sun, Russia, DPRK, Germany, Czech Republic, Latvia, 2015
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Vitalii Manskii
Screenplay: Vitalii Manskii
Music: Kārlis Auzāns
Cinematography: Aleksandra Ivanova
Second Camera: Mikhail Gorobchuk
Editing: Andrei Papernyi
Sound and Translation: Evgeniia Lachina
Sound Engineer: Anri Krensbergs
Producers: Filip Remunda, Vít Klusák, Natalia Manskaya, Simone Baumann Petr Kubica

Vitalii Manskii: Under the Sun (V luchakh solntsa, Russia, DPRK, Germany, Czech Republic, Latvia, 2015)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks© 2016

Updated: 04 Jul 16