I Tried to Make a Film About North Korea and Fell Victim to Its Propaganda Machine

Director Álvaro Longoria on getting stuck in the country's information feedback loop, even with his all-access pass.

by Tom Seymour
Feb 27 2016, 12:00am

Inside the North Korean side of the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Photo: Metrodome Distribution

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

James Franco was supposed to make Zac Efron funny, not threaten to cause a nuclear apocalypse. But that's what happened in 2014 when The Interview went from Hollywood to the US President's radar. "If somebody is able to intimidate us out of releasing a satirical movie," Obama said of North Korea's alleged cyber-attack on Sony Pictures over the comedy, "then imagine what they might start doing if they see a documentary they don't like." Cut to the title credits of The Propaganda Game, the new film by Spanish documentarian Álvaro Longoria, that tries to show what it's like to live under the "daily bombardment of propaganda" of Kim Jong-un's regime.

Longoria was given exclusive access to North Korea via Alejandro Cao, a 40-year-old fellow Spaniard who also happens to be the Special Delegate on North Korea's Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. Cao acts as a de facto presenter in the film, trying to convince us of North Korea's essential good in comparison with the capitalist West's evil. And Longoria mostly complies with Cao, crafting a film that often evokes an epic grace in sweeping shots of landscapes and tightly choreographed drills and performances, but is clearly made in line with his host's wishes.

The film hits on the injustice North Koreans feel about how they're perceived. Namely, how ridiculous Jong-un's regime seems to all of us living beyond the country's borders. "How many nuclear weapon tests have there been in North Korea since the Second World War?" Cao asks at one point. Three, according to an infographic onscreen—possibly four now, since a test in January. "And how many nuclear tests, in that timeframe, have been conducted by America?" he asks. The answer given is 1,035 (more like 1,054 tests between 1945 and 1992, as per the US Department of Energy).

Like a hall of mirrors, The Propaganda Game is Longoria's journey into a place where no fact can be taken as a given, and no statement accepted with sincerity. By letting himself be used like this, Longoria says more about modern North Korea than any recent hidden-camera doc on the country. And, by extension, he makes a point beyond North Korea: how our ability to manipulate, and be manipulated, by the information we hide and show can come to define our lives. We spoke to Longoria about getting an all-access pass to North Korea, and compromising his directorial independence in the process.

VICE: What were you trying to achieve with this film?
Álvaro Longoria: I wanted to look at how propaganda works, and the different ways it can be used. North Koreans use propaganda on their citizens as part of a massive exercise. From the moment people there are born, they're bombarded with the same ideas all the time. But they also do it to outsiders, and try to use us to spread their message. I found I had also been manipulated by the West. There's virtually no hard information out there about North Korea, so you can write anything about it and people will believe you. North Korea is the most extreme place for propaganda, and, in extremes, things can often become very clear.

How much did you look to other Western depictions of North Korea for information?
I've seen a lot of them. I decided I wanted to stay away from the "hidden camera" style of filmmaking. I didn't want to make a film that claimed to reveal something when, to be honest, it's very hard to reveal anything about North Korea. And it's very easy to fall into doing propaganda yourself. You can prove any point if you want to. The only influence I had was North Korean propaganda films from the 1920s and 30s—purely in terms of aesthetics. I wanted to show propaganda as propaganda, to make it look beautiful and grand.

There are scenes in the film where North Koreans you meet talk about what it's like to know that people around the world may believe stories about their home that aren't true. How did you deal, personally, with not being able to trust anything anyone said, at any time?
It felt like I was caught in a feedback loop a lot of the time. If someone tries to manipulate you all the time, you're going to end up being manipulated. So I wanted the audience to be there with me, to make them part of that manipulation. I wanted to take it as far as it goes, and to see then what might happen.

What surprised you about North Korea?
I knew I was going to be shown the best side of North Korea. I knew they were going to use me for propaganda. That was obvious. The question was whether I was going to be able to resist it. I was kind of surprised, because, in actual fact, their propaganda was very clumsy. I thought they would do a much better job. They're so isolated from the world, and so isolated from the Western media, they're actually not that sophisticated when it comes to how the media works.

The "most benevolent leader" projected behind some performing kids in Pyongyang

Were you taken in at all?
I was. I'm not a news reporter; I became a victim, I got Stockholm Syndrome. After 10 days of being subjected to a huge amount of propaganda, I could start to feel it working. I maintained an accommodationist approach, because I was trying to get them to relax and be very open with me. That means I had to agree with them on some occasions.

But I have to admit, I was starting to like what I saw, and that was only after 10 days. What would happen to me if I had to live there? I find it hard to believe most of us would hold out. The propaganda is constant. It's brutal, non-stop and doesn't broach any discussion. In other communist countries, you feel, when you talk to the people, there's some dissidence. People have an opinion, they complain. North Korea is absolutely solid. There's no room for any dissidence—not even positive or constructive criticism.

Does North Korea have anything on the West? Are they better off than us in some ways?
Who is happier? North Koreans, who do not realize they live in a fake world, or have any idea of the world beyond their country, and who truly believe in their system? Or the Western people who are struggling to keep up, and live as outliers? North Koreans are happy because they don't know anything. We're unhappy because maybe we know too much. If I was going to be poor, I think I'd rather be poor in North Korea than New York City.

You gained access to North Korea through Alejandro Cao. What's he like?
I don't think there's ever been such an extreme case of a Westerner turning like Alejandro. He met his first North Korean friends in Madrid when he was 16. He's gone through extensive training, and he's very good at his job. Sometimes, you talk to someone off the record—you go for a drink and they relax and let their guard down. He never did that, not even once.

"My dream was always being a member of our Korean People's Army," says Cao, in this exclusive clip.

I went to his home, I met his parents, I've travelled with him across the world, and he always stayed on message. He's a very efficient machine. They call him "the Spanish Soldier." He's a celebrity over there, and he feels like he has a mission. He is grilled in the West on a constant basis, but he's absolutely prepared to defend his adopted nation. He doesn't seem to have any regrets.

Was there anything you had to leave out of the film?
We visited the German embassy in Pyongyang, and I was put inside what was essentially a big safe. They closed the door behind us and said we were in the only place in North Korea where they can't listen to you. For two hours, German intelligence officers briefed me on what was going on. A lot of those stories I hadn't heard before, and haven't heard again. I wanted to be very careful not to be manipulated, by either side. But I wish I had recorded that. One of the things they stressed is Kim Jong-un's position is not as strong as it may seem.

The North Koreans are pretty upfront about their use of propaganda. They don't try and hide it. In the UK, we're arguably the recipients of propaganda too. Are you interested in showing that?
That's a central thesis of my film. People often tell me how trapped the people of North Korea are, and I respond: "Yes, they're not free. But the question is, are we free?" You're only free if you have the power to make a decision. And you can only make a decision if you have enough information. How often are we given that information? It's sometimes difficult to know whether we're that much different from them.

The Propaganda Game is out in the UK Friday, February 27.

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