Director: Álvaro Longoria
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Date: February 26th
In the prologue to her autobiography, In Order to Live, North Korean defector Park Yeon-mi explained briefly how challenging it can be to understand the Hermit Kingdom, owing to its information blockade. Writing, “not only does the government attempt to keep… all foreign media from reaching its people, it also prevents outsiders from learning the truth about North Korea… [It] tries to make itself unknowable. Only those of us who have escaped can describe what really goes on beyond the sealed doors.”
Yet, the problem here is that despite insisting the defectors are the one source of truth, the fact is Park’s track record in giving interviews has damaged her own credibility to a certain extent. In the lead up to the publication of the book, her frequent media appearances when compared were found to be laden with inconsistent descriptions and details, which other defectors were dismissed out of hand. This is not to call her dishonest. Post-traumatic stress may well explain blurred memory and embellishment to raise awareness has been another suggested reason behind any alleged exaggerations. However, interestingly enough, she is not the sole defector to come under such criticism. Former citizens such as Shin Dong-hyuk, Lee Soon-ok, and Kwon Hyuk have also been proven, or freely admitted to manipulating specific, often crucial details of their own experiences.
Therefore, if one cannot be sure of the validity of a defectors account, then where else can one turn? Most would assume the western media to be an answer. Unfortunately though, most platforms outside the control of the Kim dynasty are often too preoccupied with sensationalist news stories (For example: ‘Unicorn lair “discovered” in North Korea’, The Guardian, November 30th 2012) to even question whether, or not they are receiving information from a reliable source.
Pretty quickly, you realise, there is virtually no way of getting an actual image of this place. The only logical step then, is to actually acquire a plane ticket, and enter the state yourself in order to extract something that comes close to resembling the truth, bearing in mind you may be touring a Potemkin city. But then again, who is saying this, what is their agenda, and how do they know this to be true?
Hardly a popular theory, this one: there is always a minute chance that North Korea, as the final rickety pillar standing on the Communist side of the Cold War, is actually a fine place for most, but due to its ideological slant, is hence depicted as a state of total depravity. You can laugh this notion off, but can you prove otherwise? This frustrating debate is precisely what filmmaker Álvaro Longoria sought to solve in his documentary, The Propaganda Game, a work which challenges perceptions, by dissecting the totalitarian state, while also critiquing our certainties about this peculiar, and dangerous hidden nation.
In essence, he wants us to seriously question the facts we have been handed concerning the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Do we believe that around every street corner is a starving child, or an adult being stamped into the ground by a police officer, or do people actually inhabit this land with some degree of normality?
Opening on a series of glorious shots of Pyongyang, the capital city, complete with an uplifting rendition of ‘Arirang’, the unofficial national anthem of both Koreas, one’s expectations are challenged immediately. There is no suffering. There are couples getting married, people strolling about, ambling not rigidly moving in straight lines. There are children in skate parks, men painting, and more importantly there is laughter. Once exposed to these idyllic images of joyful normality, the viewer is then posed a second question as the musical backdrop switches to a more ominous note. All of a sudden, we are being told, this country is “a kind of hell”, “mad and bad and sad and silly”, and a place where hope goes to die. Yet the people stating these points are American news anchors, whose experience in North Korea probably does not stray beyond the monitor off of which they are reading.
Are we to believe what we see, or what we hear, or should we pause and think, before aligning with either side?
At this point, Longoria inserts himself into the story, in a rather Michael Moore fashion. Questioning the credibility of the certain critics, he tells us how he went to North Korea to discover the truth. Although, in making this declaration, he reveals about his own character a certain level of naivety. His humane fault simultaneously hinders, and enhances the work itself, leaving him potentially exposed to Stockholm syndrome. So, as the film progresses, we are not sure if he is being manipulated into telling an officially approved story, or if he is exerting genuine creative and journalistic control over the narrative.
He can in theory ask whomever he likes any question that he chooses. Yet, his efforts are constantly in vain. When he seeks to challenge his subjects, the responses reveal nothing besides their ability to recite a Kafkaesque script. One recurring theme is his attempt at gaining a clear definition of the juche system, a philosophy conceived by Kim Il-sung, which demands total self-sufficiency. However, all he receives are vague platitudinous slogans, uttered by people speak, but do not think about what they are saying.
In calling him naive, however, this flaw is actually of great benefit to our understanding of North Korea as a state, which can inspire ferocious passion amongst swathes of its citizens. When one looks at Pyongyang, or learns that all citizens are given free healthcare, education and housing, it becomes difficult to classify this as anything besides an ideal place to call home. Yet the crucial detail again is theoretical freedom. North Korea, we are explained by a variety of experts, despite being a “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist-religious” state, is still built upon a rigid class system known as Songbun.
Divided into three groupings; party-members and supporters, regular citizens, and then, undesirables, what we learn is that while yes, the three mentioned benefits are free, still their quality is dependent on your rank. If you are an undesirable, then while you may receive free housing, the location will not determined by you. This is why Pyongyang appears so enticing. Handed out to only those in the highest tier, we grow to learn that this is both a facade, and a proper city, distracting one from the adverse conditions of the rest of the state.
If there is any truth that Longoria manages to locate, it is that the appeal of North Korea stems from its ability to generate national devotion by way of white lies, glittering generalities and repetition, repetition, repetition. A good introductory overview for people who wish to learn more about the country, and a fantastic psychological study on how brainwashing works, The Propaganda Game is a piece of work that finds humanity in a chilling world, while reminding us that nobody is immune to mental manipulation.