I went to TFF as a patron instead of a volunteer. I saw a documentary called A State of Mind with my sister and stepmother. It was about two North Korean girls who were training for the Mass Games - a gigantic celebratory performance that involves thousands of people doing synchronized gymnastics. Most of them are highly self-disciplined school kids. In some ways, the film was very unbiased, but it was also unavoidably political.
One interesting thing about this doc is that the filmmakers had unprecedented access to film in North Korea. For a lot of people, this will be their first exposure to the daily lives of North Koreans. Not as different as you might imagine.
One striking characteristic, however is that the North Korean culture seems incredibly symbolic. At the beginning of the film the narrator mentioned that the Mass Games are designed to subjugate the individuality of the children and prepare them to be good communists. I thought that seemed kind of judgmental. Then, as the movie progressed, it became apparent that the people in the film saw it that way too, only they see it as a good thing. They basically worship Kim Jong Il, and his father before him. And the chance to perform in this beautiful, grueling recital is, to them, a way of serving him, serving their country, and strengthening their nation.
There were several parts in the movie where the characters mentioned that they hate the United States. It was evident that they've been fed propaganda and misinformation, but at the same time you can see how they could be confused and resentful for us dropping bombs on them and blockading their import of food.
My sister pointed out that the focus on capturing these "hate the US" moments may have something to do with the fact that the filmmakers were British. Haha! In the Q&A, the (British) director mentioned that they hate US policy, but they like American people. That didn't really come across in the film. However, I question how much distinction North Korean people make between white, English-speaking Brits and white, English-speaking Americans, seeing as they have almost zero contact with people from outside North Korea to begin with. So, for all we know, they may have seen the filmmakers themselves as being not that different from Americans.
The film suffers a little from self-indulgent documentary editing syndrome, but less than the one I saw the day before. I think all documentaries need a good strong thesis and a ruthless editor to keep it on track. But still, it was pretty fascinating. Apparently it's going to play in New York in August. I forgot where, maybe the Film Forum. It might play in other cities after that.