This month Cinema Asian American on Xfinity On Demand presents the long-awaited US release of Brigitte Weich’s fascinating documentary, “Hana, Dul, Sed.”
An exploration of the North Korean women’s soccer team – one of the world’s best – “Hana, Dul, Sed” follows four players through their experiences as members of the team, traveling the world as professional athletes, and later on, retiring, and moving onto lives as more common North Korean citizens. This documentary, equally portraits of soccer as of everyday life in North Korea, offers a compelling, nuanced look at the lives of individuals striving for meaning in their lives.
Weich sat down to answer several questions about the making of “Hana, Dul, Sed.”
How were you introduced to the North Korean national women’s soccer team, and what from this encounter inspired the production of “Hana, Dul Sed”?
BW: This sounds like a very short and simple question, but already provokes quite a comprehensive answer from my side: To start with I wasn’t introduced to them, but rather the opposite is true, I had to track them down. But let me start at the beginning. By pure coincidence I happened to visit the Pyongyang Film Festival – an event that is carried out biennially in the capital city of the DPRK – in the fall of 2002. At that festival a British documentary on the men’s team of 1966 – “The Game of their Lives” by Dan Gordon and Nick Bonner – had its premiere and also I had brought a football-film from Austria (“France, Here We Are!” by Michael Glawogger). By this way football was a topic among us small group of international guests of the PIFF and at some point someone mentioned to me, that these days the women’s team of DPRK was very good. From that moment I absolutely wanted to see a women’s football game. Not so much because I was a big football-fan, on the contrary: the men’s game did not really interest me, and I was actually not aware at that time, that women played that sport at all. But I wanted to see some real people doing some real things. In DPRK when you visit that country as a foreigner, you are not allowed to move around freely, like one would probably be used to from other destinations they have travelled before. At your arrival you are picked up from the airport by your personal guide, who will stay by your side until they put you back on the plane at the end of your visit. During your stay you will be shown all the museums and monuments, all the memorials and mausoleums the “official” DPRK has to offer. But the most normal things are the most difficult to access. During that first stay I had the impression – and I think many foreign visitors to the DPRK might feel that way – that I am being maneuvered through theatre props, and the longer the stay the bigger the wish to get a glimpse behind that staged reality. A football game I imagined to be such a casual event: a stadium, athletes, supporters – I was longing for that kind of genuine experience of everyday life in Pyongyang. I nagged my guide day in and day out to let me go see a game, but to no avail. Back then I had just not yet understood what an outlandish thing this was to ask for. So I had to leave from Pyongyang without my wish granted, and, since I had not been given the opportunity of seeing those players with my own eyes, I said: Well, this would be something that would interest me – a film on the women’s team of DPRK. However at that point it would not have occurred to me in my wildest dreams that I first will have to make that film myself, before I can see it.
Many in the world have quite unrealistic notions of North Korean life; your film does not replicate what we’ve come to expect to see in film and news reports, but offers something quite different. Can you discuss how you wished to represent North Korea in this film and what from the women’s lives helped to shape this?
BW: The DPRK is quite different from anything I had seen before. I did not have much information about the country when I first went: I knew that it was sort of communist – but also I hadn’t really visited communist countries as long as they were still existing – and I knew it was a split country, somehow similar to Germany before their reunification. But that was it. So already the first bus ride from the airport to the hotel pretty much blew my mind: streets devoid of commercial billboards, shop displays and cafés, of brand names and logos, lined instead with painted propaganda posters and inscriptions of slogans. Wide, multi-lane boulevards with hardly a car on them, spotlessly clean and serenely calm. Passersby clad not in global fashion but in military gray-brown-greenish, occasionally spots of candy-color, a tsogori as the traditional costume of Korean women is called in the DPRK. This scenery, so utterly different from any city I knew, was accompanied by the explanations of my guide, who kept praising the accomplishments of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, both of them also omnipresent in streets, official buildings and private homes through statues and murals, paintings and photographs. Maybe this is even more special and disturbing for me as a citizen of Austria, where the word Leader / Führer is unutterable not to mention in the slightest positive connotation. All of this, combined with the above mentioned prohibition to move around freely triggered my curiosity to learn more about the DPRK: where did it come from? How is it possible that such kind of a society could develop? How is it possible to live in it nowadays? I did not want to set my background of western consumer democracy as a standard and prove how weird the North Korean society was from that perspective. That was just my starting point, which needed no proof: it did feel very weird to me as it was. The journey I wanted to undertake was in the opposite direction: I wanted to challenge the feeling of weirdness and try to understand. Maybe this is what you mean by “not replicate what we’ve come to expect”.
Now why was it exactly these women who helped me go down that road? Well, besides the above mentioned coincidence that I was not allowed to watch them play in Pyongyang, which triggered my curiosity even more, maybe the female footballers promised to provide me with that angle from which to cast a glance of understanding out of two reasons: firstly they’d be females, like myself, and therefore might have some common kinds of experience. And secondly they’d be females who live a life quite opposed to what is in most societies the stereotype of a woman. I expected that this might provide an interesting area of conflict.
When finally I met the footballers for the first time – it was in the Asian Cup in Bangkok in 2003 – I was totally captured by the beauty of their sport, and for a certain time I was totally confused, whether the film should be on the subject of DPRK or on the subject of football. In the end I hope that we managed to treat both subjects – and to tell a story about DPRK by making a film on football, and tell a story about football, by making a film on the DPRK. That being said I think that in all of it affection played a big role: We really fell in love with our protagonists and this also provided an interesting area of conflict, I think. Because we got introduced to a rather repelling societal system by individuals that were very dear to our hearts.
Your film follows several women not only while they are active players, but also after their careers have ended. Why was it important for you to continue to follow them after their retirement?
BW: Actually also this happened by coincidence. And also this coincidence quite confused me at the beginning. Because it was not expected – not to mention planned – that those players would be retired. As they themselves mention in the film, it came as a total surprise that they lost against Japan in that qualification for the Olympics 2004. Nowadays when Japan is reigning World Champion, one would expect them to beat virtually any team, but back then also we were rather shocked by this outcome. After all of our first shoot in the DPRK was in 2005, and we were worried how to make a film on footballers when none of them was still playing actively. In the end however this turned out to be a rather lucky turn of events. And again I’d say out of two reasons: the first is a very pragmatic one – I think that we got far more access to the retired players. Because in DPRK they take the sport very serious, and I assume we would have had a hard time to get permission from the football-executives to film the active players so extensively, because they have to concentrate on their training and must not be distracted by some western film crew. Secondly I think it was a gift really to talk with these women in a situation when they are at a turning point in their lives. When they question their fate. When their situation is not settled and comfortable, but still fragile and vulnerable, as well in terms of their professional lives as their private decisions. We – that is: we filmmakers and by that also we, the audience – could watch them reflect, question, doubt, decide about their individual plans and wishes and their role in society. And what’s more I think we could see a much wider variety of what every day lives of young women in Pyonyang could potentially be like, than if we had only had the daily routines of a football pro at our disposal. – So these were actually three.
“Hana, Dul Sed” was made over a six-year period and for you, this was your first film, coming from a career in law. Can you discuss how the film changed or shifted focus for you and the players during this time period?
BW: As far as my profession of lawyer is concerned – I had always been working in the field of arts and culture, so the shift was not as big as if I had been an attorney at court, for instance. Still I think my education was not only of great influence, but of great help for the project: not only with respect to contracts and other administrative matters – I am also producer of the film. But I do believe that an education at law school shapes your way of seeing and understanding and analyzing the world. How the law – be it constitutional law, or individual entitlements, be it law of the nations or human rights – determines the coexistence of the human being in its given society and of societies towards each other is a very interesting field or observation to me. Throughout my professional career this film was, I’d say, the most thrilling and fulfilling and worthwhile thing I did. Because indeed it allowed me to delve deep into my subject matter: I do believe that we got access to people and places in the DPRK we never would have without a camera. And by researching into this “weird” and “alien” world I think I learned also a lot about my own world. I think the process that me and my crew went through in these six or so years, was the important thing really. That it ended up being a film was sort of just the icing on the cake. Though I must admit if ultimately you can show what you saw to other people, and if these other people can take something out for themselves of what you show them, this gives you a very rewarding feeling. What it meant for the players is hard for me to guess. But I think and hope that ultimately they like the film and don’t regret having participated. At the beginning I think they were not too happy that I showed them losing, especially so against the arch-enemies, USA and Japan. I think they were well aware that it was their fault and not mine – after all it was them who lost those games. But having it captured on film made too painfully visible time and again what was back then a really great failure and disappointment for them. Anyway as time went by I think they could put it into perspective and take from the film that they had been a great team nonetheless. We showed the film in a beautiful cinema in front of a Pyongyang audience two years ago with our protagonists present. And I had the feeling that the audience was quite impressed, and after the screening the players one after the other had to give detailed record of what they have done after the film ended. The audience was just so curious about them, and did not want to leave the theatre before all players had spoken to them. And the players I think were surprised and pleased about this reaction and had not anticipated how touched the audience would be by their fate.
What are you working on now?
BW: We have been filming one more time with our protagonists in Pyongyang, but it is not yet sure what will become of that footage – maybe some kind of extended bonus-track for the DVD, maybe something bigger. Since I am a one-woman band in my small company, everything seems to just take a little longer – therefore unfortunately no tangible new projects. But then again also Hana … rather chose me as its director than I chose to make that project. Therefore I am really just open minded towards anything that might come along the way, rather then too focused on certain plans. In that respect maybe my life is a bit like documentary film making itself: Do have an intention up to some point, but always let reality surprise you and carry you away.