The Propaganda Game (2015), directed by Alvaro Longoria
Netflix, watched 1/11/16
The gist: This is a documentary on North Korea, specifically the propaganda being spread about North Korea by the regime itself and by other countries (cough the United States cough).
The Viewing Experience: was not great. I watched the majority of the movie while deskwarming, and the video was really stuttering and strangely edited, though I’m assuming this had more to do with my school’s internet than the actual movie.
My Review: If you know me in real life, you may have noticed I have sort of a thing for North Korea. And, indeed, one of my motivations for moving to South Korea was how interested I am in North Korea (though, I must say, living here has been fairly useless on that front. Excepting one air raid drill early in the year that was looked at by students as an excuse to escape class for 20 minutes or so, South Koreans seem generally pretty uninterested in their angry hat.) It’s not like a “man, I wish I lived there” thing, obviously, thank God, but it’s more of a “look at this real-life Hunger Games happening in front of us, why isn’t everyone obsessed with this, man I’m probably going to see a nuclear war in my lifetime and I really want to know why” sort of thing. I designed a class on the subject, I’ve read a ton of books on it, I’m into it.
So because of that, this is far from the first documentary I’ve seen about the country, and all the ones I’ve seen approach the topic in a similar way: present footage of smiling people in clean, seemingly thriving Pyongyang, and contrast that with the numerous reports from human rights groups and defectors of mass starvation, totalitarian control, and other atrocities. It’s not that this formula isn’t effective, it absolutely is.
I did enjoy the cuts from the DPRK supporters saying one thing, to the Amnesty International people saying the exact opposite, though after a little while it got a little heavy handed, and it never really had the shock value it seemed to be searching for. I mean, if you tell the viewer that citizens can be killed for saying something against the regime, it’s hardly surprising that you get no footage of citizens saying something against the regime, is it? Also, I found its view of North Korea to be very limited. The film showed many beautifully shot sequences in Pyongyang, and interviewed citizens living and working in the city, but because the filmmaker was not allowed to leave the city, there are is no coverage of the countryside. I appreciated the lack of bias shown in the coverage of Pyongyang, (there’s a point made that tourists and filmmakers often thing the entire city of Pyongyang is staged for them, which a worker says shows the tourists think themselves much more important than they are, and I think I agree), and because the film focuses on propaganda, it seems appropriate to use the only city open to foreign visitors. However, without showing any of the rest of the country, the film’s scope suffers, and I found I learned nothing that I had not already seen in other documentaries or in well-known books.
All of that aside, I did enjoy it (is enjoy the right word here? Probably not…) There were two things that stood out as different from other DPRK docs that really helped the film. First, the filmmaker makes use of the self-called Spanish Soldier, Alejandro Cao de Benós de Les y Pérez, who is a Westerner working in and liaising with North Korea, as his guide. This Chris Christie lookalike takes blissful ignorance to a whole new level. He founded the Korean Friendship Association (check the website for a wild ride), and is a believer in the DPRK’s ideals and the Kim regime. He was apparently complimented as a child for his communist beliefs by a North Korean party member, and had since nourished a dream of being a part of the North Korean system. He is treated well and has gained many awards from the military, but when watching this film one gets the sense that Alejandro is a pawn being used as a symbol for Western admiration of North Korean beliefs. It is equal parts entertaining and bone-chilling.
The second thing I appreciated as being fairly different from other North Korean-focused films I’ve seen is the acknowledgement of American propaganda against North Korea. The film made it clear that although North Korea is committing war crimes (and they are, even more than this film lets on), the United States is still compliant in spreading false information, which clouds any sense of truth about the Hermit Kingdom. I suppose this isn’t that shocking, seeing as how Fox News controls a large chunk of American news media, and would probably report that Santa was real if Santa came out as a muslim-hater, but it’s still refreshing to see a documentary on North Korea call out the United States on its role in spreading false information.
TL;DR: This was a decent documentary on an endlessly-fascinating subject, and I’ll be surprised if we don’t see many more like it in the future. It would be a good place to start for newbies to North Korean research, or for those with a casual interest in the country. If you’ve got some knowledge of the country, but are still interested in seeing the absolute clusterfuck that is a European supporter spouting regime doctrine while being massaged into compliance, definitely give it a go, it was an entertaining watch. If you’re looking for new information, though, look elsewhere, as this covers much of the same ground as most of the popular films of the genre.