There's no way of telling if the girls and their families are speaking their minds freely when they gush about their beloved leader and vilify the U.S. And it goes without saying that their privileged lives bear little resemblance to those of the country's ordinary workers and farmers. But the film is remarkable because it offers a rare look at North Korean daily lives—and because its very existence seems to contradict the regime's policy of nearly total isolation. A State of Mind offers scenes of indoctrination in action as a "revolutionary-history" teacher exhorts junior high school students to hate the U.S. and drills them on Kim Il Sung's "three types of greatness." (The correct answers: greatness in ideology, greatness in leadership and greatness in aura.) And we observe a mother cheerfully cooking breakfast as a wall-mounted radio—which can be turned down but not off—blares propaganda.
Why would the Hermit Kingdom decide to throw open its doors to foreign cameras? Some experts think it's part of an effort by the regime to soften its image abroad. "The North Koreans are desperate for good publicity," says Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea scholar at Leeds University in Britain. "Since they're incredibly bad at [p.r.] themselves, it makes sense to have foreigners do it for them." Director Daniel Gordon suggests that the project was authorized by Kim Jong Il himself. "Permission for something like this must have come from the very top," he says. Despite his unprecedented access, Gordon says that the government had "no editorial control or input," although when inside the country he and his film crew were accompanied everywhere by official "guides." The royal treatment can be attributed in part to Gordon's previous documentary, The Game of Their Lives. That film assembled the surviving members of North Korea's 1966 World Cup football team, who upset Italy and became underdog heroes in England, the host country. North Korean authorities liked The Game of Their Lives so much that it was shown on state TV.
A State of Mind offers no unexpected insights about what North Koreans think of themselves and the world, but it does provide some tantalizing clues. One of the gymnasts tells her mother "bye-bye" as she leaves for school—a blatant misuse of the language of their imperialist enemy. And her friend's grandfather, a construction worker, mentions that he is building a large market ("We people are all curious about such a market," he says), suggesting that economic reforms are filtering through to everyday life. These snippets shed little light, but A State of Mind is illuminating in one very basic way: seeing the families at close range reminds us that North Koreans are people, too.