The SOAS North Korea Society recently hosted a screening of Álvaro Longoria’s The Propaganda Game. The documentary is not going to tell you anything new about North Korea, its on-location original footage being the product of a fully-chaperoned three-day tour in Pyongyang and the DMZ. What it does do, however, is hinted at in its title.
Scenes of happy people moving freely about in Pyongyang – who learn that they have “nothing to envy” in respect of people living in other countries – are juxtaposed with voiceovers presenting the standard narrative heard in the West: experts talking about starvation, torture and political prison camps. This disconnect is explained by the fact that all the happy people in the film are of course in Pyongyang, while the political prison camps are safely out of sight in remote areas of countryside. Nevertheless there is a more serious point that the film is trying to make about the two diametrically opposed narratives. After a few days in Pyongyang, the director found himself starting to believe the propaganda he is being fed by his minders and other people he is allowed to interview, even though he “knows” the propaganda is false.
The propaganda consumed, believed and regurgitated by the people that the film crew meets in Pyongyang is not the only target of the movie: also under fire are some of the ludicrous stories that appear in less responsible Western news outlets. Stories such as Jang Song-thaek’s supposed execution by a pack of hungry dogs; the discovery of a unicorn, and the rumour that North Korean males had to have haircuts like Kim Jong Un all fit in with the narrative of a brutal regime with a leadership cult where fantastical tales are believed provided they have official backing. But that does not make the stories true.
If this makes the film sound too relativistic, some of the sager talking heads (which include Barbara Demick and Michael Kirby) are allowed to land a few blows in favour of objectivity: in a section which examines the DPRK’s claim that there is freedom of religion (the film crew visits a Catholic Church during their stay) Andrei Lankov points out that while there might be a Catholic Church in Pyongyang, you can get arrested for bringing a bible into the country. And as for the service: it was a Mass without the central Eucharist, “because a priest was not available”. And it is Lankov again who demolishes Juche as a coherent school of thought. The documentary mischievously follows the Lankov statement with footage of an interview with one of the minders in which he struggles to explain the concept, with the excuse that unless you are Korean or a philosopher you won’t have a chance of understanding it.
Probably the main selling point of the film though is the entertainment provided by its central character: the eccentric Spaniard Alejandro Cao de Benós who despite his inability to speak much Korean has a sort of celebrity status in Pyongyang. He is an integral part of the propaganda story, making himself the voice of the regime to foreigners as he explains away typical Western misconceptions in an benign, avuncular style reminiscent of the Great Leader himself.
Overall, though, your brief introduction to North Korea’s unofficial Spanish ambassador is not enough to make this movie worth your time.
Álvaro Longoria The Propaganda Game (2015)