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Films from Forbidden Lands

Bill Meyer: People in the West rarely get to see films from North Korea, let alone Cuba or Vietnam. Film festivals are often the only source for cinema from the 'forbidden' communist countries.

People in the West rarely get to see films from North Korea, let alone Cuba or Vietnam. Film festivals are often the only source for cinema from the 'forbidden' communist countries. The Toronto International Film Festival has filled the void.

Forbidden Lands

Soon-Mi Yoo is one of the six directors who participated in the experimental 2012 anti-war anthology, Far From Afghanistan. It was patterned after the classic doc Far From Vietnam that featured some of the greatest progressive directors of the 60s, including Chris Marker, Joris Ivens, Godard, Resnais and Agnes Varda.

Songs from the North is her recent project, a personalized experimental style film with no narration interspersed with title cards. Often surprising with its old jumpy film clips, candid interviews, silent archival footage and beautiful nostalgic music interspersed throughout, the film still holds an amazing fascination, primarily because of its little known subject matter. An unconventional film about an unconventional country. Director Yoo's story is told in title cards:

“This longing all my life for a place I was not permitted to go until recently. How do you explain it? It was a land of evil and yet sacred as your mother's womb. At first I thought it was because I grew up in Korea. North or South, landscape can look familiar. Only later did I realize I had seen it before. In the bombing footage by the US Air Force during the Korean War. From the beginning it was clear I didn't understand. I thought it was some kind of disease. Love. They said. The 38th parallel was an arbitrary line drawn by a junior American officer after Japan's surrender. No Koreans accepted it as a permanent border. Least of all Kim Il Sung. Hence the war. To reunite the country torn into two."

The film offers a rare chance to see the streets of North Korea and hear the honest feelings and sentiments of the people on the street, some who agree and others who disagree with government policies. It's also a rare opportunity to hear the other side of the story, from the victims of American imperialism. You'd almost expect some aberrant behavior from a country that was totally devastated by bombings from the US.

Title cards continue the story: "the trauma of separation continues to haunt North Korea. They are obsessed with reunification unlike South Korea ... For the North Korean elite, Germany is a cautionary tale. Above all they want to know what happened to their East German counterparts ... The urban technocrats fear they will be sent to a camp or killed if the South absorbs the North and ordinary North Koreans turn against them ... Is the North the loneliest place on Earth? A country without friends, without history. Only myths repeated endlessly from morning to night."

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Yoo's father, still living in the South, talks about his communist friends who went North. Some were purged, “but the West would like you to believe all the citizens are brainwashed with no feelings.”

The film makes valuable use of classic North Korean cinema, including such exotic classics as A Broad Bellflower (1987) and The Country I Saw (2010) (both available on YouTube). One clip seems to offer reasoning for the North Korean drive for nuclear weapons, "if barehanded people ask a robber to lay down his gun he would never do so.” Another film clip shows the astonishing Museum of American Atrocities, which contains gruesome photographs depicting the barbarity of the Western invader: killed 35,383 people in 52 days, throwing people off bridges, pounding nails into their heads, sicking dogs on them, no water for over a week for prisoners who are starved or frozen to death. When they left, the invaders poured gasoline on everything and burned the town. With American imperialism still breathing down their neck at the 38th parallel, it's no wonder North Koreans have acquired a distaste and mistrust for their enemies.

On the other side of the world, Cuba has had the same enemies at their doorstep, but for not quite as long. Although a part of their country is unjustly occupied in the form of an unwanted military base operated by the US. The longest running economic blockade has still not brought down the fiercely proud people of Cuba. But the country is struggling, while drastic steps are being taken to inject capitalist elements and hopefully save the economy. Cuban cinema is also struggling, production is down. Forced into co-productions to overcome financial limitations, many of the stories seem compromised, with themes and politics that appeal to the West in order to sell, and certainly anti-Cuban Revolution themes. The last couple years TIFF showed no films from Cuba, but this year there were three – of widely varying quality and story.


Venice is the least of the three, simply a contrived tale of three Cuban women hairdressers who wander aimlessly through the night streets of Havana. With a bare skin plot (and a few bare skin actors), the movie goes from one nightclub to another with very little to say except to show there are many Cubans who prefer to avoid making any meaningful contributions to society. Behavior on the other hand is a beautifully constructed story with strong performances and high production values, centered on a young student and the problems he faces at home and school. The young boys father is missing and his mother is an absentee alcoholic, leaving him with several father figures, and a teacher who sits in as 'grandmother.' Warm performances, wonderful music, and an honest challenging story about social issues facing Cubans today, makes the film very rewarding.

Return to Ithaca takes place on a Havana rooftop overlooking the romantic Malecon seaside boulevard, starring some of Cuba's top actors – to name just one, Jorge Perrugoria from Strawberry and Chocolate fame. And the film is expertly directed by French auteur, Laurent Cantet (The Class, Human Resources, and a segment in 7 Days in Havana), based on a book by Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura. The film addresses issues of forced exile, betrayal, love and loyalty, as a group of old friends meet to welcome back one of their own who has been gone for 16 years.

Through the course of one afternoon and evening, the friends debate, sing, fight and make up as they learn the true reason their friend left the country. They relive the frustrations, disillusionments, friendships and dreams they had for their country, in one of the best movies from the island in some time. Winner of the Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

bill meyer

Bill Meyer
People's World