DVD: Comrades in Dreams (2006)

October 7, 2016 | By

ComradesInDreamsFilm: Very Good

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: Good

Label:  Pathfinder Pictures

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  April 14, 2010

Genre:  Documentary / Cinema / North Korea

Synopsis: The aspirations of four avid film exhibitors are profiled in this fly-on-the-wall documentary.

Special Features:  Outtakes of North Korean (8), India, and U.S. segments / Slideshows of Burkina Faso, India, North Korea and U.S. segments




In Comrades in Arms, director Uli Gaulke intercuts somewhat fly-on-the-wall documentary segments of four disparate film exhibitors: an itinerant tent theatre run by a 25 year-old business graduate in India; an outdoor cinema in Africa managed by three best friends after the government film exchange in Burkina Faso was dissolved; a single-screen theatre in the small Midwestern town of Big Piney, U.S.A.; and a film club in Chong-Ri, North Korea, managed by two longtime best friends.

000Director Gaulke intercuts segments from each location to form a near-perfect narrative where themes, characters, aspirations, and realities connect, and the intangible allure of the movies inspires each film technician and exhibitor to find personal happiness.

The ‘social nobility’ of film exhibition has been explored in dramas like Cinema Paradiso (1988) and the broad comedy The Smallest Show on Earth (1957), but Gaulke’s characters are very real, and doggedly push on to ensure they deliver the best entertainment experience to audiences whose tastes to which they expertly cater.

Anup Jagdale, for example, knows his Indian customers don’t care about Titanic because people in an arid locale are less likely to identify with a lot of white folks drowning in a doomed ocean liner; ergo, he screens indigenous musicals and dramas with themes tied to local lives. He hopes one day to have his own permanent theatre, but for now, he travels to towns with his caravan, erecting huge tents, blessing his film prints before each screening (presumably to prevent mid-projection splices) and barking non-stop ad phrases to locals as to why it’s vital they buy a ticket for his latest film.

African Lasanne Badiel and his friends manage an open-air cinema, but the group also works the outside crowds, chatting up and convincing potential patrons to see a film a second time because their big screen is better than a conventional TV, or they deserve a night out. The young exhibitor is seen chastising one of many outside food vendors for offering the wrong kind of soup and skimping on meat, and he lets a hesitant film lover enter for free, telling him to pay after the show – assuming he’ll like the film.

Iowan Penny Terfetiller went from being a bank teller and stay-at-home mom to theatre owner/manager/concession stand operator/print handler, mostly because of her love of people, n unwavering work ethic, and community spirit. Besides, she likes working with her best friends, and the town of Big Piney is just one big family, anyways.

Yong-Sil Han and her best friend are committed to meeting the social and political needs of their North Korean farming collective, and each carefully selected film presents a clear moral argument or life lesson upon which the locals can improve their lives, and keep the collective strong and productive. Once a dreamer of silver screen stardom, Han became a film technician, and she’s determined to stick to her word and deliver the film as promised to patrons.

Director Gaulke could easily have cut each of the four sequences down to their bare essentials, covering the mechanics and location details of exhibitor operations to form a 50 min. documentary, but as slow-moving as Comrades tends to feel after passing the midpoint, there’s a lot of personal moments that present the exhibitors and audiences as amiable, accessible, ordinary people – which is important considering Gaulke could easily have fixated on film technology, and obvious political issues.

There are no editorial stances in Comrades, which some may find frustrating, particularly in the North Korean segments. Exactly how Gaulke was able to secure so much time and location filming is a mystery (the DVD’s extras bear no director or production details), but she seeks to capture how Film has positively affected people in spite of ongoing political, economic and social hardships, so there’s no commentary on poverty, or people trapped in a brutal communist dictatorship.

The cameras just follow her subjects at work, interacting with movie fans, and sometimes the filmmakers trek home with their subjects. We join Badiel’s outdoor dinner with super-fresh barbecued chicken; there’s Jagdale’s family visit, where the discussion centers around a search for a wife who can tolerate his itinerant lifestyle; and there’s Han’s deeply spiritual relationship with the deified Kim Il Sung, and her quiet, personal loneliness as she raises a daughter while her husband is away on some grand government restoration project.

The North Korean sequences are also the most striking because they present artfully composed shots of the farm collective, as well as a boat ride with Pyongyang as a backdrop.

That segment’s central location – the collective’s stark, linear cinema – also doubles as a performance hall, and there’s a brief segment where Han’s colleague directs a troupe rehearsing an ethereal political song.

None of the major Hollywood films mentioned by the exhibitors are excerpted in the doc, but there are clips from a North Korean propaganda film whose theme of relationships, love, and honor Gaulke interweaves with Han’s personal life. (The weighted political and ideological content of the romantic drama is fascinating and downright surreal: two elders exchange pictures to set up their grandkids for marriage, but when the girl refuses to look at the picture of a kimchiresearcher, it upsets the social order. Only when she apologizes to her potential mate is social and communal order rectified.)

What’s important is that Han comes through as a decent person, which is tough when her personal culture is steeped in a worship of the elder and younger Kim dictators. The DVD’s bonus section includes candid outtakes that may not deal so much with film exhibition, but the citizens’ constant exposure to political ideology via music.

Songs plays from a car’s double-barreled bullhorn as a group gathers to enter a tour bus destined for the city core, and the aural indoctrination continues as the caravandrives on an expansive (and fairly empty) highway. Even a picturesque boat ride includes a live band crooning danceable odes to the totalitarian regime. Gaulke doesn’t editorialize her subjects; she lets the subtleties convey the weirdness of the totalitarian regime.

Among the extras is a tour of a filmmaking exhibit with a North Korean government rep spouting all kinds of deified nonsense, of which the most hysterical are explanations of a massive painting where Kim Il-Sung ‘directs’ a film unit with immense efficiency. The elder Kim reportedly wrote a play in 1930 which was turned into a film in the late sixties under his personal direction. His wisdom was such that when a cameraman preferred covering a mother running through a grand battle with one camera, Kim figured out a way to do it with three cameras, and to capture the scene within 8 hours instead of the proposed 3 days.

The Chongsan-Ri location, though, is fascinating. Gaulke doesn’t dwell on the architecture, but the doc’s footage presents the collective as a massive, flat city with huge plantation grids flanked by wide, ordered, cobblestone roads. There is no dirt, rubble, or teetering masonry; everything is clean and linear, and designed to make the populace feel they are active components of a giant production plan.

The outtakes of Pyongyang also convey the geometric order of the city’s layout, with drably coloured city blocks almost instinctively arranged for wide-view photography, and in one shot on can see the derelict Ryugong Hotel in the distance. (Although begun in 1987, construction was halted in 1992 when funds dried out, and the infamous hulking monster was stricken from official maps in spite of being 105 stories tall. Slight levels of construction began again in 2008 for a proposed 2012 completion.)

The North Korean location dominate the DVD’s stills and outtake galleries, but the deleted scenes should’ve been authored with a Play All option. Additionally, Pathfinder’s DVD uses a PAL-NTSC transfer that suffers from stutter-vision; the step-like images are evident when an object or the camera pans back and forth, and the image is a bit soft, making the end credits fuzzy. The colours are strong, however, and Axel Schneppat’s beautiful cinematography manages to distract from the DVD’s obvious digital compression. Most of the digital compression is forced on the outtakes, and it’s probably due to cost-cutting ideology that the DVD wasn’t a dual layer release.

The English subtitles are fairly accurate and colloquial, and composer Mark Orton creates strong thematic and somewhat ethnic-flavored music using just a handful of instruments, adding distinct colour to each of the four segments without wandering into musical clichés.



© 2010 Mark R. Hasan



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