Lessons from the Hermit Kingdom
Life happens fast. Yesterday’s dystopian fiction is today’s reality. American history now includes a woman in the 21st century being arrested and found guilty by a jury for laughing at somebody. Most places that have an awareness of despots also have some pearls of wisdom about laughter being the bane of despots. In the new normal you may not need to travel to foreign countries to find authoritarian behavior to mock, but there is plenty to learn from people who have made such trips.
The current favorite authoritarian tourist destination is North Korea. If you poke around YouTube, there are a surprising number of tourist videos from the Hermit Kingdom. Nobody just wanders around without a minder pointing a camera at anything they want, but a running motif when you watch a lot of them is the surreptitious moment where the tourist whispers: “I don’t think I’m supposed to film this.”
Recently a Prog Rock band called Round Eye—of American expats based in Shanghai—were permitted to film a rock video in North Korea. Although they had permission to film at a carnival, if the camera strayed by an inch, the footage could be confiscated. One of their best stories includes an approved (staged) image that is compelling in its strangeness: A group of young children are seated at a curb working on adult-skill-level plein-air paintings. Although the paintings are finished and the paint is dry, the children continue to move the brushes in a mime of applying paint.
The current gold standard for getting a candid look inside this secretive world has been set by a Russian filmmaker who went in thinking that North Korea would be something like a time capsule of the USSR. When he realized that North Korea lacked the culture of critical thinking as well as films, libraries and theaters, the focus of the project changed.
The company had already agreed to use a script provided by the government. Minders on the set coached the actors in what was supposed to be a documentary about a family whose daughter was preparing to join an elite youth group.
The director’s alarm grew when the minders meddled in every scene, but he left the camera running, and thanks to some genius pre-planning the camera recorded on two memory cards, only one of which the censors were allowed to inspect and edit each night. He also hired a sound engineer who was fluent in Korean, so he would know what the minders had planned. The resulting film, Under the Sun (2015), is a case study in how to subtly undermine authoritarian situations.
It used to be taken for granted that the First Amendment meant that it was safe to point and laugh. As laughter becomes an actionable offense, it is time to learn the lessons of people who have penetrated the veil of the Hermit Kingdom and apply them to the Mirthless Kingdom. Double up your memory cards, and stream everything you film to a remote location. It’s going to be a bumpy ride!