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IFFBoston 2009 – Day Two – Lost Loved Ones with Forbidden: 1 of 3

Hunger.  Fear.  Deprivation.  Death.

These are the realities that seep into your pores while watching Kimjongilia – which is also the first in our Forbidden trilogy, spotlighting three documentaries that explore the places that we cannot go.  Today’s topic - North Korea: See No Evil.

Through the eyes of witnesses, and perhaps mercifully not through our own, director NC Heiken shows us a glimpse of a world most of us will never see behind the veil of secrecy that has become North Korea.  What is revealed is a self-isolated realm of propaganda-led thought control and short-sighted public policy enforced by merciless jack-booted authoritarians, all locked in a time capsule of Soviet-era technology.

When a leader is treated as a god, all dissent – even a trivial lack of reverence – is akin to blasphemy.  Spreading out a sheet of newspaper on the floor to cover a spill is a punishable offense if the paper happens to display a picture of Dear Leader.  In North Korea, all offenses are punished for three generations.  Not over the course of three generations, but all three - grandparent, parent, and child - at once.  A slight such as this one might send you off to a detention camp, where punishment for all further offenses, real or imagined, is treated the same: death by firing squad, immediately.

This is a country where most people are forced to live with heads bowed, marching in cultural lock-step on the path chosen for them by others.  Most of these same people have seen those they care about brutalized, executed, or just “disappeared”, and yet they must continue on as if they saw nothing or they will suffer the same fate.

Here, you can be a talented young singer, but if you sound too much like a South Korean pop star, you will be condemned for sounding Capitalist.  Here, you can be a marvelous classical pianist, but if you are heard playing music composed in France, expect to be reported.  Here, ignorant agricultural policy leads to crop failure, yet farmers are forced to grow opium and decorative flowers like the honorific Kimjongilia instead of edible produce.  Here, you can hope to escape across the sea by masking your vessel from weak, outdated radar by draping blankets and outrunning a Navy whose only available fuel to chase you down is wind and sail.  Here, ultimately, your fate may rest on something as simple and random as a slip in the snow.

In The Missing Person, Michael Shannon follows up his lauded, brash supporting role in Revolutionary Road with a subtle, effective leading performance. He portrays a retro-styled private detective somewhere on the spectrum between Phillip Marlowe and Joe Friday, but with a softer substrate.

Living in his art-deco-appointed bachelor apartment with his film noir habits, this throwback has a hard time fitting into the modern world.  Yet as the story unfolds around a case of deceptive complexity, we find there is another dimension to this silhouette of a character, a common humanity whatever the era, and more to an absent loved one than just a person who is missing.

Tonight also featured the world premiere screening of director Amy Grill’s debut documentary feature, Speaking in Code.  Grill and her husband, David Day, set out to make a film about the world of techno music not just through performances, but through the lives of the artists and those whose love of the music borders on obsession.

Immersed in a three-year production, Grill and Day get more than they bargained for.  Like Nietzsche’s abyss, this obsession inevitably reflects back on those who observe it.  Diverging creative philosophies among artists strain long-standing relationships.  Day’s energetic support of the genre and his dedicated efforts to bring broader exposure to the people of Boston force Grill to the realization that he, and by extension, she, have become characters in their own documentary. To some extent, even the film itself is now a reflexive character.

The silver lining to this dysfunction is that three years of flying back and forth to Germany and becoming completely absorbed into the culture they are recording turns their film subjects into close friends and grants the filmmakers a comfortable, open access to their story that provides so much more intimacy than if they had kept a dispassionate distance.

During a trip through the facilities of the German music label, Kompakt, the camera pans across a poster displaying a phrase that becomes an unofficial tag line for the film: Lost In Music.  For this film, for its subjects and crew, for the joy they get from their art, for what it adds to their lives and for when it leaves room for little else, I can think of no more fitting description.  Lost in music, indeed.

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