The title of Daniel Gordon's documentary A State Of Mind refers both to the will of two young North Korean gymnasts and to North Korea itself. Gordon first went there a few years ago to make the 2002 documentary The Game Of Their Lives, about the astonishing run of the North Korean soccer team in the 1966 World Cup competition, and the government trusted the British filmmaker enough to invite him back in 2003 to document the "Mass Games," a synchronized athletic display that celebrates the subordination of the individual to the collective. Gordon records what it takes to get 13-year-old Pak Hyon Sun and 11-year-old Kim Song Yun ready for the pageant—namely, hour after hour of ritualistic training—while also covering what it's like to live in a place where a "worker's siren" blows at 7 a.m., and homes are outfitted with state-sponsored radio sets that can be turned down, but not off.
Gordon describes North Korea at the outset as "the least visited, least known, least understood country in the world," but that's a slight overstatement. The nation is more of an anachronism: the last of the sustainable socialist states. (Though with its rampant malnutrition and reliance on foreign aid, it may not be sustainable for long.) A State Of Mind enters the girls' classrooms, where history gets broken down into a simple us-vs.-them story, with the "them" being American imperialists, and the "us" being a perfect nation led by Kim Jong Il, whose greatness is explained by a pie chart. A State Of Mind presents North Korea as a curious and contradictory culture, built on outraged victimhood—inspired by the American military actions of the Korean War—in concert with a desperately enforced idealism.
But most of that analysis is between the frames. Even though Gordon deploys the usual authoritarian British documentary style—complete with know-it-all narration—he avoids passing judgment. He's clearly fascinated by the enthusiasm and dedication of his hosts, who need to believe that their leaders mean well. Unlike the athletes and artists of the former Soviet Bloc, these girls and their families aren't cynics. A State Of Mind was beautifully shot and crisply edited to emphasize the Mass Games' pageantry, but amid the synchronized blocks of performers, Gordon singles out the cranky coaches and giggling schoolgirls, subtly emphasizing how the individual endures even when she's trying hard not to.