I just watched A State of Mind, a fascinating documentary about North Korea’s Mass Games, a spectacle of synchronized gymnastics meant to instill communist spirit. Made with the complicity of the regime, it’s a bit sugarcoated, but plenty of interesting stuff slips through. (One advantage of dealing with a totalitarian system that’s sincere in its own self-delusion is that they aren’t very good at judging how things will look to outsiders.)
The Mass Games themselves are a rather brilliant invention, comprising three distinct artforms performed simultaneously: Group rhythmic gymnastics, symphonic music, and “backdrops,” which involve thousands of young students flipping colored squares at precisely coordinated intervals to create huge mosaic images. And all, of course, are forms where you can create performances of incredible beauty provided everyone is attuned above all to staying in perfect sync with the group. In the gymnastics in particular, any individual variation leaps out at the viewer quite starkly—and is, by definition, error. And yet a competitive spirit manages to creep in anyway: The kids jockey to be closer to the front in the performance, for instance—to be the best communists.
While of course you can’t know how sincere people are being on film, especially when they know their despotic regime is going to see the tapes, the kids really do seem to have an attitude of genuine awed reverence for the Dear Leader. If that really is the case, at least for some North Koreans, it’s a thousand times creepier in a way. We imagine people compelled to pay lip service to some despised tyrant, and we think of the wrong there as arising from the conflict between their true will and the oppresive power of the despot. But at least there, you have a kind of freedom in the form of internal resistance—how much worse to actually love Big Brother.
I was a little amused, incidentally, to hear a couple adults offer their interpretation of the mandatory national philosophy of Juche, or self-reliance. What it means, one explains, is that if the state can’t provide a tractor or some farm tools, we don’t complain, we do it ourselves. So the “self-reliance” here comes after the default of expecting the state to take care of it, I guess as an alternative to rolling over and dieing when (as must happen quite a bit) the state fails.