The propaganda game (Álvaro Longoria, 2015)

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The propaganda game, directed by Álvaro Longoria (2015).

Score: effective.

Álvaro Longoria is one more of the many Westerners interested in learning what is going on in North Korea. The Hermit Kingdom is incredibly hard to visit (despite how many tourists they brag about having) and Longoria was authorized to enter the country by mediation of Alejandro Cao de Benós, the notorious Spanish ally of the North Korean regime.

Being a documentary sanctioned by the regime, both men are always in the company of a supervisor and have limited freedom of movement. Since Longoria, like everybody else, cannot question the regime’s official version of facts, the documentary becomes a ping-pong match of Longoria asking about the most common conceptions about the country and Cao de Benós grimacing, laughing and countering with North Korea’s own propaganda. Since nothing else can be done, Longoria leaves it up to the viewer to make up their minds about what might be going on in there.

A variety of topics are discussed, including the army, nuclear weapons, education, the Juche, economy and cult of personality. Basically, Longoria gives the official Western version, aided by various experts in the topic as well as North Korean defectors and Cao de Benós and inside specialists deny everything and give an alternative explanation.

Cao de Benós explains they won’t let their enemies, who “insulted their father”, in their country but that still doesn’t explain why North Koreans are not allowed to go anywhere, not even inside the country in many cases. A tour agent comments that tourists who think what they see when they visit is made up for them think themselves very important. It is a good point, but even so, given that so few people are allowed in and they are supervised at all times, it’s perfectly possible. Longoria is taken to a luxurious apartment with a woman wiping the kitchen counter and saying she’s cooking dinner. She’s clearly not cooking dinner, she won’t show what’s in her fridge and she even refuses to answer the harmless question “what are you making for dinner?”, a great opportunity to thank the Great Leader for the plentiful and healthy food he provides for his children. Questions about Juche philosophy are swiftly avoided with an “are you an expert in philosophy?” like the damn thing is more complicated than Hegel and Heidegger put together. Longoria is taken to a Catholic church to show there is freedom of cult, but is is also admitted that getting Bibles in the country is a criminal offense. I love how Cao de Benós mentions they do know how to get around the US blockade to import HP computers but he won’t tell how because it’s a secret. It’s like he didn’t even bother to justify why they need to buy computers instead of making their own, much better and the envy of the world.

On the other hand, North Korean propaganda is a damn effective thing. It sometimes gets you thinking: “gee, maybe it’s not all that bad after all… it looks like they’re all truly equal”. I’m not familiar with defectors’ narrations yet but that’s something I plan on researching next. Whatever it is that made them want to leave, I believe it’s not pretty at all. The film also explores another side of the question that is very frequently overlooked: how the West will believe anything about North Korea, whether there is any sort of proof or not. Jang Song Thaek was reportedly shot to death instead of fed to rabid dogs, but some Western media didn’t allow the truth to get in the middle of a great story.

All in all, it’s a good documentary. Like with everything else related to North Korea, there is very little real information in it. Even North Korean propaganda is very limited to a few slogans and explanations that even I can reproduce after little to no research.

Further reading: Without you there is no us: Undercover among the sons of North Korea’s elite (Suki Kim)

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