It’s no secret that some documentary films are either partly or largely staged. Think of Errol Morris’s re-enactments; think of the fake archival footage in Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell; think of documentary granddad Robert Flaherty casting and concocting scenarios for Nanook of the North. That these strategies can also be apt, essentially accurate and foundationally truthful is a paradox as old as the nonfiction form. Yet there’s some next-level complexity and audacity to Under the Sun, a seemingly true — or at least truly revealing — record of faked reality.
The gambit is as good as it gets. Hoping to shoot a documentary about Zin Mi, an 8-year-old girl in North Korea, Ukrainian-born filmmaker Vitaly Mansky goes along with the terms laid out by the state: He’s issued a shooting script, instructed on where and how to film, made to submit footage for review and, as described in a subtly arch opening text, “kindly” saddled with a “round-the-clock escort service.” Mansky’s parry in return isn’t to subvert these rules but rather to underscore them.
By letting the camera roll before and after shots, Mansky shows us Zin Mi’s parents studying their lines and gamely pretending to work at jobs devised by the script; we also see the black-clad “escorts” coaching the cast through multiple takes, even calling “action” and “cut.” “Don’t act like you’re in a movie. Act naturally, like you do at home,” they tell a family being filmed at their (ostensible) home. (Mansky’s host nation has become less cooperative since the film’s completion, and fears over North Korean retaliation, Sony hack–style, were reportedly a factor in MoMA’s not programming Under the Sun in this year’s Doc Fortnight festival.)
Though there’s something inherently satisfying about seeing propaganda de-pantsed, thankfully Mansky has something greater to offer than easy irony or telegraphed truth-to-power satire. Because just as it’s no secret that documentary footage can be staged, neither is it news that socialist realism is an elaborately orchestrated crock. We expect to see impressive arrays of identically uniformed citizens within vast public squares. We expect to witness stilted factory-floor pageantry. We expect to hear ludicrous origin tales of a young Kim Il Sung hurling a magic stone to defend his motherland from “Japanese aggressors” and “American scoundrels.”
What makes these non-revelations draw blood is the sadness and simmering rage gathered at the margins of this Soviet-raised filmmaker’s frame. From grandiose government buildings and marbled metro stations to the ubiquitous, Lenin-/Stalinesque wall decoration of Kims Il Sung and Jong Il, Mansky visually rhymes Pyongyang with Moscow — one peek behind an iron curtain recalling another. And much as in Potemkin villages of yore, there are real people toiling behind and supporting the façade. Culled from fleeting cutaways, Mansky’s footage shows citizens exercising, queuing, shlepping and, memorably, pushing an unmoored cable car back into the clear, as Karlis Auzans’ plaintive string score implies emotions and inner lives beyond our ken.
Mansky communicates much within a limited terrain, but his master maneuver is to train his sights on a still-sincere little girl. Everything may be scripted and staged, performed and presented, but Zin Mi feels actual pressure to do what’s asked of her. Repeatedly, the camera pushes in for a close-up and then just keeps rolling, registering spontaneous flickers of boredom, fear, self-doubt and humiliation over a series of interminable and unshakable shots. Obliged to learn a dance routine before the annual Day of the Sun, she strains and sobs through a rigorous practice, then grows disconsolate. Suddenly the director’s own voice intervenes for the first and only time.
“Tell her everything will be all right,” he says to her teacher, symbolically commingling his Russian voice with their Korean while also conveying a sentiment as rehearsed and unrealistic as theirs. Throughout Under the Sun, he’s lying to them, they’re lying to us, and everything collapses around a little star who may be sheltered from such deception but still feels the cost.