Documentaries are one of my favorite Netflix pleasures. They’re often hard to rent, but when you can stream them at will to your television, you’ve got the world at your fingertips.
Today is February 16th, Kim Jong Il‘s birthday. I know this bit of trivia thanks to a valuable British documentary, A State of Mind (2004, director: Daniel Gordan). With unprecedented access to North Korean daily life, the filmmakers follow the journey of two young gymnasts who are training to compete in the Mass Games–“a spectacular nationalist celebration” that glorifies the subversion of the individual in favor of the group. It is the state’s embodied indoctrination of its socialist ideology, and I must confess that it is more striking and beautiful than it is frightening. Perhaps this is the result of the compassionate way in which the documentary presents many North Koreans’ seething hatred of Americans and America. You can’t watch A State of Mind without confronting the role of America-as-foil or imagining whether the subjects are honest in the way they talk about the satisfaction of participating in front of Il and his son. It’s not a perfect documentary, but it’s more than worth your time. I encourage you to take a chance to see it.
I should be clear, this is not a post to celebrate Kim Jong Il’s birthday, but rather to suggest this documentary to any of my fellow American readers who are also too young to remember the Korean War. To put it in perspective, my grandfather fought in that war. It’s an intimate part of my family history, one that I am still learning and may one day understand well enough to write about. Similarly, going to Vietnam in December reminded me of my youthfulness, of the historical limits of my own state of mind. My father said, when my wife and I told him about the trip, “I can’t imagine taking a holiday to Vietnam.” The effect of that war on his life in America was profoundly negative, and it is integral part of the way he views that part of Ameica’s past. His discomfort with the idea of traveling in modern Vietnam was for me an opportunity to explore a country whose past was for him essential but out of reach.
More than any other documentary in a long time, A State of Mind made me think about the limits of my own historical memory. My professional work on modern America reveals that I very much want to understand the here and now–how things got the way they are at this moment. But my own experiences can only carry me so far in that journey. I can’t, for instance, really recall the first Gulf War. I have fleeting memories of images from the TV and the curious sense that I had Desert Storm trading cards. My first political memories are not of George H. Bush, but of Bill Clinton. I am a member of the generation whose first real political engagement was with the election of George W. Bush and the Florida ballot controversy. And the first memory I shared with fellow Americans of all ages was September 11th–when I wasn’t even in the U.S. but abroad in India living in a Burmese monastery.
When historians make the past present we build that presence on documents and material culture and a host of other sources. But that past must take root somewhere and the architecture of our memory palaces are profoundly shaped by our lives in the present. It’s good to get a reminder of just how fragile and intimate that architecture is. And if this documentary can do that for me, I can’t say better of 90 minutes of your time, can I?