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SEOUL — Daniel Gordon was born six years too late to see a contest that shook the sports world: the day that a team of scrawny North Korean players defeated Italian footballers in a 1966 World Cup game.

But Gordon grew up watching tapes of the match, and in the past few years, his love for football — soccer in American parlance — has provided him passage into what many call the most secluded nation in the world, North Korea.

Gordon, 33, of Sheffield, England, also calls North Korea one of the least understood nations. He’s trying to change that by capturing North Korean people doing what so many people around the world love doing: playing sports.

“There’s a strong desire from North Korea to be understood,” Gordon said. “Most North Koreans cannot grasp why they are being called evil.”

In the past four years he’s made two documentaries about the reclusive country, gaining permission for repeated visits to North Korea to spend time filming and interviewing its athletes.

“The Game of their Lives,” released in 2002, rediscovers the soccer players of North Korea’s 1966 World Cup team.

“A State of Mind,” is to open in Seoul this week and tells the story of two young gymnasts whose dedication to practice and perfection culminates in the Mass Games, a national celebration for North Korea’s leaders.

A third film, “Crossing the Line,” will tell the story of four U.S. soldiers who defected to North Korea and spent time together there from 1965 to 1972. One of those soldiers, Charles Robert Jenkins, returned to Japan last fall and faced U.S. court-martial for deserting his post along the Demilitarized Zone four decades ago.

During the filming of the three documentaries, Gordon and his small film crew were accompanied constantly by interpreters and guides. Despite the escorts, he said, no government officials denied him access to an interview, asked him to turn off the camera or interfered in any way.

At times, he would scrap the day’s planned filming schedule and insist on driving off in a new direction in Pyongyang to film kids playing soccer on the street or at a school. His guides always complied, he said.

In North Korea, Gordon acknowledges, the love of performing and competing plays a different role than in many other places in the world. The North Koreans use sport to honor their collective society and their past and current leaders, Kim Il Song, who died in 1994, and his son, Kim Jong Il.

In “A State of Mind,” Gordon captures the 2003 Mass Games.

In the performances, 80,000 gymnasts and dancers fill an outdoor arena’s floor and perform with banners, balls and flags. Behind them, 12,000 school children use panels to create mosaics that paint portraits of both revered leaders, tell the history of their country and portray the military threat the government sees from much of the world, most of all from the United States.

Gordon doesn’t try to explain or justify these sentiments, nor does he embrace them personally. Instead, he says, he wants to give the North Koreans a chance to speak for themselves.

“The impression I get is the belief is genuine,” he said of the constant references to the greatness of both North Korea and its leaders. “And it’s not their fault they’re in this situation. I do feel they are misunderstood.”

The popularity of the first film paved the way for the second, Gordon said last week during a dinner with journalists in Seoul. “Game” is played repeatedly on government-controlled television in North Korea. “A State of Mind” was featured at Pyongyang’s film festival, where it won the Special Film Award.

“Mind” also played at actor Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, and is playing in major U.S. cities this summer. “Crossing the Line” is expected to debut at actor Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January, Gordon said. It may be in Seoul as early as March, he said.

Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this story.

If you go ...

“A State of Mind” opens Friday at the DongSoong Art Center and at CGB Theaters in Seoul.

To get to the art center, take Line 4 to Hyehwa Station and use exit No.1. The center’s Web site is www.dsarcenter.co.kr:8080/eng/index.jsp.

There is a CBG theater near Yongsan Garrison. Take Line 4 to the Sinyongsan Station and exit No. 4.

Life in North Korea

Daniel Gordon of VeryMuchSo productions talked last week about his experiences working and visiting North Korea. Most of his time was spent in Pyongyang, the nation’s capital. Since his visits to the country began in 2001, he’s noticed a few more cars in the streets and many more bicycles.

He said more markets have appeared, a stark contrast to the previous conversations he’s had with some North Koreans who didn’t understand what a market was. He also noticed that more people there are beginning to dine in restaurants on a regular basis, rather than just for birthdays or special occasions.

Gordon and his film crew even found an English-style pub and drank with the other regulars in the candlelit nights when the electricity was turned off.

Still, he said, he sees the effects of the country’s poverty even in its richest city. Most people he met struggle not necessarily with starvation, but with malnutrition.

Some recounted days of eating half a bowl of corn porridge each day. On one birthday, a child was given a full bowl as a present. He is working with the World Food Program to encourage donations, he said.

“In Pyongyang,” he said, “they are doing OK.”

But he took a trip to a farming community only a few miles outside of the capital and said seeing the people who live there was like being on a different planet.

— Teri Weaver


Stripes in 7



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