Thursday, May 13, 2010

In the Dark: Comrades in Dreams

Suppose you are a western filmmaker who somehow gains access to North Korea, the most closed society in the world. You probably would want to ask something more probing than Barbara Walters questions like, if you could be a character in film, who would that be? Unfortunately, Uli Gaulke largely wastes such an opportunity in his documentary, Comrades in Dreams (trailer here), a selection of the Sundance, Berlin, and Karlovy Vary Film Festivals now available on DVD.

From a fly-on-the-wall POV, Gaulke observes four very diverse cinema proprietors from four very different countries, who all seem to share a passion for bringing films to their patrons. Often they are real entrepreneurs, like Lasanne Badiel of Burkina Faso and Anup Jagdale in India, each of whom dreams of establishing a more permanent cinema.

In contrast, Sunday school teacher Penny Tefertiller presides over The Flick, an institution in Big Piney, Wyoming. Sadly, it is the kind of movie house that is fast becoming a rarity in small town America. Rather than financial rewards, she maintains the theater because of its importance to the town’s social life. Of course, market forces do not concern Han Yong-sil either, as the film programmer for a North Korean workers’ collective.

While Comrades is a mostly harmless ode to dedicated lovers and purveyors of cinema around the globe, its North Korean segments are frequently problematic. Gaulke’s scrupulously non-judgmental editorial policy accepts a lot of weird scenes at face value. A case in point is Han’s movie of the week, Our Flavour, a cheesy revolutionary romance that defends the honor of Noorth Korean kimchi (no kidding). More troubling is an exchange in which the local party functionary explains whenever she has a “problem,” she asks Han to program a propaganda film which addresses it. Yet, despite such avenues begging for further critical inquiry, Gaulke prefers to indulge in travelogue footage of the ugly monuments of the Kim personality cults.

Though flawed, Comrades is not irredeemable. To his credit, Gaulke clearly has respect for Tefertiller’s faith and Big Piney’s small town values. It is also nice to see the entrepreneurial spirit alive and well in Africa. Unfortunately, there is no real narrative arc to the film, so it never seems to get anywhere. Distinguished more by its lost opportunities, the modest Comrades is now available on DVD from Pathfinder Home Entertainment.