(CNN)A documentary intended as a portrayal of a happy family in North Korea has instead become a behind-the-scenes look at how the country's authorities manipulate appearances.
Propaganda film project backfires on North Korea
The film "Under the Sun," which airs at a film festival in Washington on Thursday, assembles smuggled outtakes to show the inner workings of how a propaganda film is made in North Korea, a country known for fiercely controlling its image.
With a script agreed upon by North Korean officials and Russian documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky, the project began as a portrait of a supposedly ordinary 8-year-old girl in Pyongyang named Ri Zin Mi, as she prepares to join the upcoming pageantry for the birthday of Kim Jong Il, the late North Korean leader. They also worked out access to the girl, her family, her home, her school, and even the workplaces of her parents.
It is unclear whether the film crew and the North Koreans ever had the same vision for how the film should turn out. But soon after filming began, the filmmakers began to chafe at the expectations of the North Korean authorities.
"It was completely fake," said producer Simone Baumann. "They would come to the scene, and would tell the people what they have to do, where they have to sit, how they have to sit, how they have to smile, they would tell them what they have to say."
In scene after scene, the movie reveals the outtakes of North Korean handlers staging each scene for the cameras, instructing everyone on what to do, feeding them lines, and directing them to show more enthusiasm.
In one setup, an official tells factory workers to be more effusive about their work. "One more time. Why is your applause so weak?" he says. At a second factory, the handler feeds the workers lines about productivity and workplace satisfaction. "Say that joyfully," he adds.
Even a highly decorated war veteran is not immune: a minder interrupts him and tells him to finish up his war stories, and segue to his scripted lines.
And for a scene where the young Zin Mi is tucked into bed, two handlers are seen arranging the shot, right down to the blankets.
As disputes worsened over the direction of the project, North Korean authorities announced they were pulling the plug. But the filmmakers still had the footage, including the outtakes, thanks to a camera that was always rolling, and a recording system that used two memory cards instead of one.
Baumann said North Korean censors would review the footage every night and delete clips they did not approve of. But the camera crew, risking unknown consequences if they were caught, kept a duplicate memory card of each shoot.
"The camerawoman is very brave. She put [the memory card] in her trousers when she went to the toilet," said Baumann. "They gave one of them to the North Koreans, and the second one they took with them."
Using the smuggled footage, the filmmakers decided to continue the project, unauthorized, as a behind-the-scenes exposé. "We decided we had to show that everything is staged," said Baumann.
A sardonic explanation is shown onscreen near the beginning of the movie: "The script of this film was assigned to us by the North Korean side. They also kindly provided us with a round-the-clock escort service, chose our filming locations, and looked over all the footage we shot, to make sure we did not make any mistakes in showing the life of a perfectly ordinary family in the best country in the world."
The movie, with its arresting cinematography and deliberate pacing, includes rarely seen glimpses of daily life in the supposed workers' paradise: shuffling workers being harangued with loudspeaker slogans; colorless streets almost devoid of cars; and the dreary sight of piles of flowers carted away from a memorial where children had dutifully placed them.
"This film confirms the reality that everything is stage-managed," said Robert Boynton of New York University, author of a book about North Korea called The Invitation-Only Zone. "That whatever we see is what they want us to see, that people's lines are fed to them, that everything is choreographed."
But the girl's parents have been quoted denouncing the film, saying it was made under false pretenses and was selectively edited to make an "anti-North Korean movie." According to a story on the North Korean news site Arirang Meari, they call the director a hypocrite, saying it was the director himself who often insisted on staging their daughter's scenes.
"Vitaly Mansky directed her, told her, 'Do this, do that,' " her mother is quoted as saying.
"We thought he was making the documentary for the purpose of a friendly cultural exchange," she added. "We did not know Mansky was such a black-minded person."
The government of North Korea intensely protects its image, both at home and abroad. Indeed, shortly before Sony Pictures was to release "The Interview," a movie depicting the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, North Korean hackers launched a devastating cyber-attack on the company's infrastructure, according to American officials.
Citing fears of similar retaliatory cyber-attacks, one American film festival curator even backed out of showing "Under the Sun," at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The museum has now disavowed that decision, according to museum spokeswoman Margaret Doyle, and the curator is no longer employed there.
But in spite of North Korean officials writing to Russian officials demanding the film be blocked, the movie has been shown at film festivals in Russia, South Korea, and elsewhere, including the AFI Docs festival beginning Thursday in Washington.
Boynton expects the North Korean family in the movie to suffer no blowback from the way the film turned out. But he added, "I think the biggest fallout would be probably for, certainly the people who negotiated and allowed Mansky to enter the country, and secondly to the minders who guided his crew. They might be in trouble."