Years back, I stumbled upon an online article about a photographer’s journey to North Korea. The interview itself did not share too many interesting points. However, it was accompanied by a selection of photographs.
One of these is edged in my mind ever since. It shows a larger city, most likely Pyongyang, in darkness. It is night time. A small bank of fog worms its way through the streets where people should be. It is quiet. Eerily so. I am not kidding here: You can SEE in the picture how quiet it is. Yet, no peacefulness. Maybe it is my brain; knowing the context; that adds the palpable sense of oppression to the picture. The part of the city in the picture is lightless. Apart from two or three lit windows, a whole city district lies there – seemingly abandoned. All one can make out is one main thoroughfare surrounded by silent concrete buildings. Concrete buildings that, I can feel through the picture, hold so many people in silence. The only real light in the image emanates from a floodlight illuminating a poster of the supreme leader.
Whenever I remember this picture, a feeling wells up inside of me. I feel like weeping. I feel an insatiable longing for these places. It is as if some part of me wants to take in all of it. All this sadness. And I somehow know that places like these will always exist one way or another. They are a part of us. All of us. Believe me or not, but these places are necessary. They do not work without us. Wherever we are, these places are. We bring them with us. We create them. We have done so for centuries, and we will do so until we vanish.
Ever since that photo, I realised that my own collection of snapshots often features buildings like the ones left in the dark in the picture I saw online. Images of concrete monstrosities a lot of people call home. In Germany, we call these Plattenbauten. I tried looking up the English word for them. The closest expression I found was ‘prefab buildings’, although that doesn’t quite cut it. For my British or American readers: Think council estate buildings or prospects. It’s the type of housing that efficiently tries to hide away hundreds of families into convenient blocks. You know the type – buildings where the less fortunate live in dystopian futures.
I grew up in one of these before my family embraced its middle-classness and moved to a nicer part of the city. Maybe my fondness for these ugly structures stems from these years. I am not sure.
Halfway through this post, I find myself rambling as I try to put words to a sadness deep in the pit of my stomach. It flared up today as I watched an early 2000s movie about Ché Guevara’s roundtrip of Latin America. (The Motorcycle Diaries)
My own opinion about Ché and communism are summoned up quickly. It is easy to glean that my views about the world are at the very least left-leaning, socialist ideas. However, I have an issue with cults, and unfortunately, during my life, I have learned that you can dial up anyone or anything into a cult. A lot of good ideas die that way. The older I get, the more I’ll have to admit that Karl Marx has correctly identified how capitalism will destroy us. However, the older I get, the more annoyed I get with folks who can point out the holocaust in everything but refuse to acknowledge a single gulag. To this day, I find this a flaw that needs to be addressed. It is the primary reason I wouldn’t call myself a communist. (Side note: There is three books I’d recommend reading regarding this topic: Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales and Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time) This opinion extends to Ernesto himself. Though I can identify with the idealised portrayal of him in this movie, a thoughtful young student of medicine with a poetic, golden heart, I cannot forget the simple fact that the pop culture idol is a mass murderer. Another truth rarely acknowledged.
The subject of the movie is actually secondary to me. What struck me more is the cinematography of it. I am convinced that the people who financed the flick, the writers, the actors had a pretty specific agenda in mind. (some atheists definitely had a bone to pick in this one; which in turn proves how you can turn even the simple act of “not-believing” into a cult)
However, whoever was responsible for the actual images, and sound design must be some kindred soul. There it is again: All the pain and love we possess in the same place. A melancholy to cry for.
A melancholy eternal.