Released in 2015, The Propaganda Game marks my first documentary on North Korea. Significant in that it allows the viewer to formulate their own conclusions, The Propaganda Game avoids succumbing to the same tropes the title suggests it criticises. Directed by Álvaro Longoria, the documentary presents both strong proponents of the regime in North Korean citizens and the unusual character of Alejandro Cao de Benós, a Spanish supporter of the regime who guided the crew, and strong Western critics of the regime.
While creating a sense of balance in the technical sense, the tone of the work as well as the difficult questions it unflinchingly presents makes for an uncomfortable viewing. Rather than establish a position, the documentary simply presents information which the viewer is constantly reminded may be false. Contradictions by both the supporters and opponents of the regime succeed each other, with the material reality of the North Korean nation being called into question at every turn.
Skate parks and smiling citizens may fill frames, but they are anything but visual aids. The construction projects and the people who support them are the topic of the film. Longoria doesn’t invite viewers to passively watch his adventure around the country (albeit guided and controlled), but rather to doubt and challenge.
In this sense, the documentary is masterful in encouraging constant critical thinking. My view on North Korea fluctuated multiple times throughout the course of the documentary’s 98 minute run time. Perhaps my thorough opposition to American imperialism made me susceptible to sympathise with the country a little more so than your average Westerner, but my strong critique of state, indoctrination, and centralisation of power kept me distant. The idea of a country being good or bad feels vastly over simplistic – black and white thinking for a technicolour question – yet the reminder of the crimes against humanity that the regime is accused of committing seem to provide an easier immediate answer than most.
Perhaps it’s unfortunate that the topic of American imperialism wasn’t discussed more. The accusation of the US being inherently dangerous was repeated by the North Koreans (and their strong ally in Alejandro) many times throughout, and a map of the Korean peninsula was displayed on-screen, illustrating the proximity and number of US military bases in the area. There was, however, no mention of the other countries in the world that have horrendous human rights records, yet are not subject to the economic sanctions that North Korea is. Saudi Arabia, with its public executions, use of torture, international law violations, and systematic discrimination against women, is the country that springs to mind, yet its foreign policy with the United States comes in the form of $350 billion arms deals. This, combined with the record of US covert regime change seemingly does give some fair reason to the North Korean view of America, yet this is not presented in the documentary.
What the documentary does present is impressive footage of life within North Korea (or at least the North Korea the guided tour that gives Longoria access to it.) Perhaps the most immediate revelation is that in North Korea there is colour. Far from the greyscale, metropolitan Pyongyang as often portrayed in photographs, the bright attire of North Korean wedding guests dazzles within the first ten minutes. While the eclectic colours would have never been cause for surprise if the setting had been anywhere but North Korea, they were, because it was. The surprise at life in the country, or perhaps the absence of the life Western media has constructed, is addressed by North Koreans familiar with the trickle of foreign tourists and their beliefs. Sensationalist Western media coverage of North Korea is confronted in the documentary. As it turns out, no, Kim Jong-un’s uncle was not fed to dogs, and no, the country never claimed to find a unicorn. Even the strongest Western critics featured in the film denounce these as fake news, with the former originating from a satirical Chinese blog. North Koreans also express surprise at the allegation they only have a number of state approved haircuts to choose from.
In a sense, it’s deeply jarring to see these falsehoods being reported by Western media. I felt an odd but intense flash of anger as a clip played of Bill o’Reilly and his co host reporting the North Korean unicorn tale, laughing and joking about that wild North Korea, what will they do next! There was no invitation to critique, no ‘other side’ of the story to mention. Maybe it was the contrast from Longoria’s direction, which assumes a level of intelligence and critical thinking from its audience and invites them to think for themselves, or maybe it was the overwhelmingly simple narrative to an intensely complex issue that vexed me. Maybe it was the blatant lying. Probably that.
Lying is recognised as fundamentally wrong, regardless of whether it comes in the form of state indoctrination or privately owned media outlets in a society that upholds the right to free speech. Obviously there are different levels to which a lie can damage the lives of others, but as a principle lying is wrong. The presentation of both sides of the wall of misinformation seems to have irritated some outlets, with a reviewer for The Guardian deeming the documentary “flawed by a slightly irritating moral equivalence” but I wouldn’t be so opposed. I very much doubt any Western viewer would begin the film with the average level of distaste for North Korea and end it with love for the country simply for what was shown. The media coverage is presented alongside the state indoctrination the North Koreans education system perpetuates. Never does it feel like both are being presented as equally bad. Seemingly innocent children’s songs and dances transpire into an homage to the Great Leader. The ideology of national unity comes in the form of being Kim Jong-il’s children. He is, according to the members of the country, the father who sacrificed everything to give them their lives. One Western speaker draws parallels between the regime and Christianity. They certainly aren’t unwarranted.
Longoria does not explicitly make his position clear, not for purposes of neutrality, I’m sure, but rather on account of there simply not being enough information for his conclusions to not be treated with the same level of scrutiny as is applied to everyone else who talks over the course of the film. This speaks to a wider point about Longoria’s direction. There is a pleasing absence of an absolute narrative he pushes. I’m sure that makes for frustrating viewing for some, but personally, I welcome it.
The biggest question I was left with beyond the expected so what’s true is one Longoria explicitly asks in the voiceover, and confesses he still has no answer to. Where is the money coming from? How does North Korea fund the vast infrastructure that punctuate so many of the sweeping shots? If not them, who is funding it? From the expenses South Korea would have to undertake for the country to have a Germany-style reunification and the use of the country as a buffer zone between the American military bases and the Chinese border, there are a variety of reasons North Korea’s existence can be beneficial. The North Korean people are notably absent from this. This speaks to a wider theme of all the complexities and questions about what North Korea is perhaps detracting from the real issue of what the regime means for the people who live there.
The Propaganda Game opens with one question but as the film plays out, and more and more conflicting opinions are added, it invites even more questioning and even more doubt. The end shot sees the camera zoom out from Yeonmi Park’s tearful testimony of her experience in the country and her struggle to escape, as more and more media coverage appears. A mix of language blurs and overlaps. North Korean children pledge allegiance to their leader. Footage of nuclear missile launches fill one screen. Both state propaganda and sensationalist Western media coincide within the shot. The Interview plays in the corner. Just before the screen switched to black, I reminded myself, angry I wasn’t already, to look at the screen in which the shot began.
The ending shot provided a visual representation of the propaganda’s influence on the North Korean question. The West are invited by the media to see the country as the embodiment of ridicule. Its leader is to be laughed at. Its people are to be humorously pitied. Kim Jong-un is not given the role of the evil dictator – he is the madman with a God complex. If what Park and Amnesty and UNICEF and every human rights organisation say is true, if Juche is founded not on principles of self-reliance but on subordinating a people to a ruler and a system too strange and complicated when they are never able to accurately assess another system to understand their own, then the sensationalist coverage should be met with condemnation. It takes a question – are the North Korean people subject to human rights violations – twists it into a question of what threat the nation poses to the West to convince viewers that they in fact are the victims of the regime, invites them to laugh and ridicule rather than think and decide, and finally, it profits. That, at least was one of my most confident takeaways from the program. I have no doubt it’s more Marxist than most, but I would hope that other viewers with very different political affiliations would still critique the West. The film certainly won’t condemn you for it.
The Propaganda Game doesn’t answer the viewer’s questions – it invites them to ask more – and it does so masterfully.