Film Review: Propaganda Game

The Hermit Kingdom is a nickname inspired by North Korea’s secrecy and withdrawal from the wider world. The last remaining stronghold of Communism, it is a country reviled and lampooned in the West, where its mystery inspires ridicule and anxiety in equal measure. Last year, threats were made against cinemas intended to screen Seth Rogen and James Franco’s comedy The Interview – in which they plot to assassinate the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. Barrack Obama responded by asking that if that was the reaction to satire, what would they do when they saw a documentary they didn’t like? Which is an interesting question to bear in mind when watching The Propaganda Game, Spanish director Alva Longoria’s state-sanctioned video diary of his week in Pyongyang that is as fascinating as it is superficial.

It’s a highly regimented visit organised through the unexpected figure of Alejandro Cao, a forty-year-old Spaniard who is the government’s only foreign employee; Special Delegate Foreign Relations DPRK. Over the course of Longoria’s stay, he goes from being an affable curiosity to revealing the depth of his devotion to the party line; he speaks to a group of school children and tells them how Kim Jong-un is revered across the globe and how North Korea is – effectively – the centre of the world. Another official, however, admits to Longoria’s quietly probing camera that the DPRK’s understanding of how the world sees it is actually very limited. The aim is to highlight the propaganda wars being embarked upon both within the country’s borders and on the international stage.

Needless to say, those two stories are shown in stark contrast as the two sides spin diametrically opposed narratives: North Korea began the Korean War vs the USA did; their military might is a threat vs US imperialism is a threat. This is done with talking head interviews with various experts, defectors, and officials outside the DPRK and various officials and citizens within it. Longoria manages not to take sides, but presents the conflicting nature of the accounts as well as exposing the odd fallacy – such as the myth that Kim Jong-un fed his own uncle to the dogs. The problem is that his camera is ultimately too passive for a film interested in the party-line and the veracity of the truths being presented. The director is canny enough to juxtapose audio of a Western expert lamenting the horrific conditions of North Korean people with images of citizens skating on an ice rink, grinning happily. He’s also wary enough to make vague asides speculating as to the reality behind those smiles. There is a moment when he confesses that were he to be exposed to the internal national propaganda for much longer, he might even begin to believe it.

As deeply engrossing as the director’s travel diary may be it remains inert, concerned with surface and unable to get enough of an angle to see what’s happening beneath it. Even via voiceover, the commentary on what he’s being fed – either by the DPRK or the West – lacks punch. In the end, any glimpse inside North Korea is a boon for those interested in seeing it, and Longoria gets unprecedented access. However, this is a snapshot accompanied by counter-claims that lacks any real digging into either. It all means that The Propaganda Game feels strangely inconsequential and only of real note for the behind-the-scenes glimpse it proffers audiences of North Korea’s global posturing.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson

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