There I was, scrolling through Netflix looking for something to watch while I was cooking dinner on an average Wednesday night, when I came across the latest Werner Herzog documentary: Into the Inferno. I’d seen a few of his documentaries previously and was excited to see volcanoes Herzog style, geology lectures generally don’t play dramatic classical symphonies over slow motion footage of volcanic lava.
So I nestle in ready 2 hours of glorious narration by Herzog, following British volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer to locations all over the world studying volcanoes.
(Source: Netflix, Into the Inferno, 1:09:84)
When I first saw this locality title I didn’t think much of it, honestly I just saw ‘Korea” and kept watching as I had been. It wasn’t until wasn’t until Herzog mentioned it that I noticed, and immediately had 100’s of questions running though my head. No build up, explanation or acknowledging the strangeness of the situation that he had presented to his audience.
Soldiers began to emerge from the foggy ominous background, marching in unison with the only sound their footfalls. I actually began to fear for the film crew, I didn’t know why they were there, how they got there and under what conditions they did get there. As the group approaches the camera they stop just before, turn to face Mt Paektu and begin cheering, turns out they are university students. Feeling slightly confused and a little ridiculous I continue to watch the students sing praise and cheer to the mountain.
I honestly don’t know much about North Korea, just that it is an almost impervious country which is politically and economically self reliant. I’ve seem news headlines warning of the danger that it poses especially with the recent leaps in nuclear weapons, but here were a bunch of 20 something year old’s cheering and singing with incredible passion at a bloody mountain. It stuck me that I could never imagine a similar scene occurring in Australia, or most countries come to think of it.
Hertzog finally explains that North Korea agreed to a joint scientific program with the University of Cambridge and North Korean Volcanologists, and they were invited to film. He mentions that everything they saw was an act of presentation, as there is no other way to see this country than how it wants to be seen. This is evident even in the scene I had just watched, the regimented students marching up to the camera and cheering as if they could not even see the film crew, everything was an act.
The documentary seems to get side tracked, focusing on the rare opportunity and insight into North Korean culture they have been provided instead of the study of volcanoes. Herzog shows footage of television propaganda which depict a country united, completely in unison and admiration of the leadership. It appears as an amazing unison of people, no individuals, just the nation as a whole and their art and performance reflect this.
(Source: Netflix, Into the Inferno)
Small tremors detected by seismic instruments around Mt Paektu has sparked scientific interest. The university of Cambridge has been building a relationship with North Korean scientist for years and have finally been given the opportunity meet them. When they first meet the scientists millions of questions run through my head:
- If the mountain is so symbolic, how much are the North Korean volcanologists allowed to study it?
- When studying geology in North Korea, how much research do they have access to from the outside world?
- How do the universities in general work? is everything censored or skewed to fit the ideology of the party?
- How do scientists collaborate and learn up to date findings without attending scientific conferences or access to research?
- How do they contribute their own findings to global scientific community?
This opened up a whole can of worms as you can see, science without collaboration or community is slow and often unreliable due to lack of scope. I became so in awe of how this man became a volcanologist, is there even more than one volcano to study in North Korea? Maybe I was just being naive about the reality of the global stance of the county but I was still quite invested.
The scientist was using a translator to talk to the crew, however it still sounded very scripted, rigid and official, not just being translated but also censored. Everything he says is interlaced with propaganda of the leadership ideology. The founder of the Korean state appropriated the myth of Mt Paektu, and established his secret head quarters right at the foot of the mountain. Their ‘assigned’ Historian explains the war monuments, telling a story of the soldiers in a campground, so moved by setting foot on their home ground they could not sleep. All of the Monuments are about the people, not glorified individuals but the unity of their nation. Strange to think that their government is almost quasi religion, not just an influencing, government figures are worshiped like higher beings.
Herzog concludes that off stage there is an underlying emptiness, their lack of connection to the outside world makes it a eerie place. He mentions the strangeness of walking through a subway and seeing people not glued to their cellphones. No advertising, just propaganda. No news stands, only the official party newspaper on display. Everywhere are pictures of the leaders, always in the vicinity of the volcano.
Its safe to say that I was no longer in the kitchen making dinner but rather plonked on the couch with so many questions. I realized that North Korea is not only a different cultural experience in my eyes, but for every single other country, there is nothing quite like this one.