It’s an obvious but little made point that to a certain degree we are subject to propaganda about North Korea. Because we know so little about the curious communist dictatorship, which keeps itself deliberately separate from most of the world, when we hear odd things being ascribed to the regime in the media we just take it on trust. A political figure was executed by being ravaged with hungry dogs? Sure, sounds like the kind of thing that could happen.
As it turns out that story was taken and exploited from a social media post by a Chinese satirist, but is still widely accepted as fact around the world. This is the very interest idea behind the movie – how much of what we know about the country is simply based on propaganda of our own?
This fantastic documentary by Alvaro Longoria seeks to investigate the truth on both sides of the Bamboo Curtain – for this is the last place in the world, as it develops its own nuclear weapons – where the Cold War is still simmering at a high temperature. The demilitarised zone on the 39th parallel between the two countries is the most inaccurately named area in the world; there is a huge amount of military hardware there on both sides.
Longoria is Spanish and got access to the country through contact with Alejandro Cao de Benós, the only foreigner who is employed by the North Korean government. Alejandro is a curious and consequently oddly entertaining figure – he’s a Spanish man who doesn’t speak much Korean. Outside of the country he is one of the regime’s most vocal advocates – to the degree that he almost appears brainwashed. And it’s that sense of brainwashing which drives the film forward.
One of the accusations against North Korea is that when outsiders visit the country they are not allowed to see the reality of the country – with all visits and encounters being staged to present the regime in the best light. In the film its not hard to believe that this is going on. Visits to museums, hospitals and offices which are plush and suspiciously empty provide the curious impression of taking place on a film set. Often though the crew, who are accompanied at all times by representatives of the regime, pick people in the street or on the subway to talk to about their lives. The sense of love and respect for life in the country these people provide is a palpable shock. Tearfully, with adoration, they extol the virtues of life in the country and their love of their leader Kim Jong-un – the idea that this could be staged is possible of course, but it seems incredibly unlikely.
What the film does brilliantly is present everything they encounter even-handedly. This is something which is clearly difficult to do, especially when the overbearing attention of the North Korean representatives goes a great way to scupper their own propaganda. We hear from people who have defected, from academics, and almost more importantly, from keen advocates. Although we are never expected to approve of the way Kim Jong-un’s government runs the country, it certainly does make the audience reassess the way it has been presented. It won’t change your mind necessarily. In fact that circumstance is very unlikely, but it could very well change the way your opinions are reached. It makes it clear how difficult it is to find the truth.
The Propaganda Game is released on DVD on Monday the 16th May and is a fascinating and entertaining watch.