A foreign documentary filmed within North Korea (a.k.a. the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – you know a country’s a dictatorship when it says it’s a democracy, a republic, and belongs to the people) was always going to be a strange beast. Spanish filmmaker Álvaro Longoria was given (predictably controlled) access to the state for a week to tour Pyongyang, see the sights, and interview its populace. Accompanied at all times by a menagerie of state officials, what he captures is a striking look at a North Korea rarely seen by those in the west – wealthy, happy, normal.
Kids rollerskate while teenagers gather to play basketball. Families gather to visit the new amusement park, while at home someone watches Disney’s Brave. It’s a far cry from the miserable, poverty-stricken dictatorship that westerners imagine, without an iron fist in sight. It is also, presumably, mostly a sham.
Much of the delight in The Propaganda Game lies in trying – and likely failing – to pick apart the lies from the truth. When Longoria visits a Catholic Church, is that proof the country embraces freedom of religion, or an elaborate hoax for the cameras? As people profess their undying love for leader Kim Jong-Un, are they being honest, or are they all too aware of the uniformed official lurking out of frame? There are no easy answers here, and to his credit Longoria shies away from trying to offer any, conceding in the end that we may never know the truth.
In debunking a few of the West’s North Korean myths (such as the ludicrous claim that there are only 14 permitted haircuts for men, and 18 for women), Longoria raises the idea – clearly believed by the officials here – that the country is engaged in a vicious propaganda war with the United States, though members of the Western media claim not to see it that way.
Other fascinating strands investigate the country’s seemingly paper-thin ‘juche’ political philosophy, or follow Alejandro Cao de Benós, a Spaniard who is the only foreigner employed by North Korea’s government – seemingly to facilitate smuggling more than anything else. He is both Longoria’s access to the country and its most fervent admirer, his every utterance peppered with admonishments of the capitalist West.
This is a bare-bones DVD-only release, with no special features included.
Words by Dominic Preston