Behind the scenes in North Korea

In a country that often seems the world's largest film set, an odd cinema festival provides an almost surreal setting for a rare sneak-peak behind-the-scenes in the Hermit Kingdom.

By Ron Gluckman /Pyongyang and around North Korea


NOBODY WILL EVER MISTAKE PYONGYANG, capital of North Korea, for Cannes, Venice or Telluride. In fact, despite the cold, it doesnít even compare to Toronto.

  Yet documentary filmmaker Daniel Gordon still describes the Pyongyang International Film Festival as "heavenly." Most Hollywood types might be more in mind of hell. After all, the festival offers no skin, no stars and no schmoozing.

  "And no sales," notes the British director. Yet therein lies the festivalís unique charm: "This festival has absolutely no glitz, no glamour," he boasts.

  Launched in 1987 as "the Pyongyang Film Festival of the Non-aligned and Other Developing Countries," (or PFFNODC for short), the festival is held once every two years at this outpost on the Axis of Evil. For participants, it's a break from traditional film business concerns, since this is a country where annual box office grosses arenít exactly a major issue. And the festivalís past topics have tended to go at least one niche beyond what youíll find at even avant-garde art movie houses, including such crowd pleasers as Middle Eastern guerrilla groups and African oppression.

  The gold medal at the first festival went to The Shrapnel, a Libyan love story in which boy meets girl, girl is killed by imperialist land mines, boy rushes to girlís aid, boy also dies in the explosion.

  Filled out with documentaries from Iran, Iraq and other pariah states, the staid screenings also offer a respite from the often-mindless routine of previews, press tours and publicity agents.

  Pyongyang is so far off the beaten track that "itís utterly relaxing," enthuses David Carr-Brown, a Paris-based filmmaker. "There are no faxes, no mobile phones, no email."

  Still, for some filmmakers like Gordon, winner of a special prize at the 2002 festival for his acclaimed documentary, The Game of Their Lives, about a North Korean football squad that went to the 1966 World Cup, itís a Ďmustí event. Gordon was back last fall to deliver the keynote address and to show his new film about North Korean gymnasts.

  "No deals get done in Pyongyang," Gordon says. "In fact, no one else goes," he gleefully adds. "Thatís practically reason enough to go."

  Of course, the titillation of attending a film festival in North Korea comes not on screen, but in the setting. After all, the reclusive realm is still largely a mystery, despite a regular role in the nightly news and the magnificently coifed Dear Leader Kim Jong-Ilís star turn in Team America.

  And then there are the secret agendas Ė practically all of the hundred or so invited guests claim to have one. Many, like Gordon, are keen to film in the countryís surreal setting of monolithic buildings and broad, empty boulevards.

  Others confide that they are in search of potential business opportunities in what must undoubtedly be capitalismís final frontier.

Though Pyongyang abounds with garish pop-art posters extolling the glories of Kimís father, self-styled Great Leader Kim Il Sung, there are no billboards or advertising. Not a single tube of neon can be seen anywhere, a particularly glaring omission in Asia.

  Still other attendees have come without any artistic or mercantile intentions, but simply to observe, marvel and remark. Like me.

  Lacking an official invite, I cover the festival on the sly by posing as a film buff from Hong Kong, traveling on my handy new German passport. Understand that, despite my spanking new burgundy Bundesrepublik Deutschland document, Ich spreche kein Deutsche.

  My passport results from a strange loophole: my father was German-born, a Jew made stateless as a boy by the Nazi regime. Sixty-four years after his escape to San Francisco, Iím headed in reverse, using German paper to gain entry to the worldís latest ĎAxis.í

  Iím honest about my intentions, at least to the Germans. When embassy officials inquire why I want the passport, I simply state: "To go to North Korea." Eighteen months later, the German ambassador himself presents my visa.

  "Iím a major film fan." These are my first words to Mr. Kim, the guide who gathers me from Pyongyang International Airport, where I have arrived by virtue of one of the three flights per week from China, the only nation with air links to North Korea.

  For more than half the week, the arrival boards are empty, the airport dark. Today, banners flutter at the entrance: "Warm Welcome to Participants in 9th Pyongyang Film Festival."

   Unfortunately, some of our gear is not so warmly received: my mobile phone is confiscated at customs. State censorship means no unauthorized calls are allowed.

  Bigger problems lie ahead. Driving in from the airport, on roads lacking cars, past cracked-concrete apartments without electricity, I press Kim about gaining access to the film festival.

  As a tourist, I have no legitimate official reason to attend. But when I booked my tour in Hong Kong, filing a fake resume of made-up art-film distribution schemes, I was told my guide might arrange it.

  So, for the half hour to the hotel, we talk films. Non-stop. Me, the German film buff who hasnít been in a movie house in five years, and Kim, whose lifelong cinematic consumption has been the absurd propaganda churned out by North Koreaís state film studio, overseen by none other than Kim Jong-Il.

  Before rising to Dear Leadership, Kim kept the modest title of "Genius of the Cinema."

  He claims a personal library of 20,000 titles. The Genius once even orchestrated the kidnapping of a Japanese actress and director to star in one of his productions.

  After escaping, they revealed his fondness for Elizabeth Taylor, James Bond and Rambo flicks, none of which were familiar to my guide, since they are officially banned here.

  None of the sort of films the Genius of Cinema prefers will be playing the festival, though it is genuinely international, with a foreign jury.

  And while North Koreaís cinema industry may only consist of a few murky films churned out by the Hongzesan studio in the outskirts of Pyongyang, locals are avid movie fans.

  According to official statistics, movie attendance averages 21 times a year. Even outside studies with defectors suggests North Koreans head to the cinema 15-18 times per year, which is nearly 9 times South Koreaís average.

  Of course, South Koreans have more entertainment options, including such novelties as shopping, nightlife and restaurants, along with DVDs and cable.

  Even if they lost the remote, North Koreans donít need to get up to change the channel: every TV is fixed to the one propaganda station, while videos and satellite dishes are banned.

  Plus, this is the only place on the planet without internet service. As if that wasnít reason enough to head to the movie theater, attendance is often compulsory.

  Which isnít to imply North Koreans arenít film lovers. At the festival, they pack every show, milling about cinemas, waiting for seats.

  Hence, as soon as we reach the hotel, I press Mr. Kim for tickets. Comparing the festivalís program with my visitís official itinerary in the lobby, I try to substitute film screenings for other outings without causing any offense.

  "Yes, Mr. Kim, a visit to a fish farm sounds exciting," but perhaps we could attend the screening of Bend It Like Beckham instead?

  While the girl-power soccer flick might seem inconsequential, it is also the first Western hit ever screened in North Korea.

  As I make my case for football over fish farms, a woman at a nearby table suddenly stands and approaches. "Excuse me," she says, "Not meaning to be rude, but I cannot help but overhear you talk about the film festival."

  She offers a card, announcing herself as Doris Hertrampf, German ambassador to North Korea. "Iím hosting a party this week for the festivalís delegation from Germany. You are most welcome to attend."

  My first thought: busted. Iíve been in North Korea barely an hour and already my cover is blown.

  But as the ambassador excuses herself, I realize that actually, Iím saved. As a citizen of such an iron-fisted state, Kim understands duty. He can hardly deny me a visit with my own ambassador. Iím German, after all. Kind of.

  Which means, fish farm rescheduled, Iím sitting in the audience for Beckham as a handful of locals dub the film live. All of the films were submitted in advance so censors could craft acceptable translations of the scripts.

  Still, a lot slips through the cracks: audiences are noticeably shocked by the sexual innuendo in several European films. Such fare cannot help but seem revolutionary to viewers reared on nationalistic nonsense like "The Fate of Gum Hui" or "Un Hui," about orphaned twin sisters, one raised in the north who becomes a famous dancer, the other in the south who is forced to prostitute herself as a bar girl.

  Other memorable local classics include "Sea of Blood," "The Fate of a Self-Defense Corps Man," "The County Party Chief Secretary" and "Five Guerilla Brothers."

  Unfortunately, not a single one makes the festival bill, despite keen demand from visitors. Still, there is plenty of entertainment from what starts to seem like the worldís ultimate reality show.

  Between screenings, guests are constantly monitored by minders, while being shown a succession of spectacular but sanitized sights: clean subways, bustling shops, model schools.

  Itís all certifiably real yet utterly artificial, and none of us is allowed to wander off the set, into the real world of North Korea.

  My biggest detour comes on a tour of the countryside to that model fish farm and a distant waterfall. For three hours we drive past lines of pitifully shabby people. Most lug heavy sacks of dirt or cement or stacks of sticks on their backs.

  Every few miles we pass groups of soldiers Ė boys, really Ė filling potholes, pulling rocks from the dirt by hand. There are no tractors or machines of any kind, just a couple of wooden carts hitched to the occasional cow. Animals are noticeably missing.

  Likewise, there are no cars or other travelers on our deserted road. Yet, when we reach the waterfall, a group of North Koreans suddenly appears to admire the view.

  And, they donít mind me taking pictures of them, either, unlike most locals, who have complained to Kim on the rare instances when I have attempted a candid shot.

  Did they bus people to the waterfall for my benefit? Even in this land of the absurd, could such a waste of effort be possible?

  "Donít flatter yourself," Gordon retorts later that night, when we meet in the underground bowling lanes below our hotel. "They wouldnít go to all that trouble. Youíre not worth it."

  Still, the very fact that such a preposterous possibility might be seriously considered illustrates the paranoia of this peopleís paradise.

  Pondering it all is exhausting. Anyway, I'm now due at the German delegationís party, where I can at least expect a solution to one riddle. I want to ask Ambassador Hertrampf why she invited me.

  Was it pity at my pathetic imitation of a German tourist or her amusement over my obviously false cover as a film buff? Did she recognize me as a reporter and want to free me from my minders so she could share some inside secrets about North Korea?

  Or perhaps, in Pyongyang, with its closed doors and blackened streets, as part of a small and isolated group of foreigners, was she simply desperate for company? Even a faux German.

  Alas, I never find out. Hertrampf misses her own party.

  An explosion rocks the Chinese border. International observers wonder if the Dear Leader has finally blown it big time, perhaps with a nuclear bomb. Bowing to outside pressure, North Korea allows a delegation to investigate, and the German Ambassador is gone on the mission.

  Like so many questions about North Korea, my invitation remains a riddle, one more mystery in a real-life story too bizarrely scripted to be believed.


Ron Gluckman is an American reporter based in Hong Kong, who roams around the nether reaches of Asia for a variety of publications, including Tokion, which ran this piece in March 2005. Ron also contributed pieces on the Pyongyang Film Festival to Newsweek, Mother Jones and the Asian Wall Street Journal.


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