Not surprisingly, foreign filmmakers in North Korea are allowed no unmonitored contact with the locals—as documented in excruciating detail by this year’s SXSW entry Under the Sun. For his own rare glimpse into the so-called “Hermit Kingdom,” The Propganda Game director Álvaro Longoria was lucky (?) enough to have a one-of-a-kind guide: Alejandro Cao de Benós de Les y Pérez, a Spanish travel agent, scam artist, and self-proclaimed “special delegate” to the North Korean Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. Perhaps Longoria saw the 2006 documentary Friends of Kim, in which Cao de Benós showed his fine cultural-relations touch by robbing a journalist and bricking his laptop:
From Friends of Kim (2006, dir. Raphael Wilking)
Nothing so dramatic happened on Longoria’s trip—at least not on camera. Still, Cao de Benós’s dedication to The Cause is unwavering, and his testimonies of North Korea are even rosier than those of the local guides. Longoria parallels these with some of the more factually-challenged foreign claims about the country, but much of what he sees is scarcely less bizarre than the bogus reports that Pyongyang believes in unicorns. A gleaming hospital in the heart of the capital is almost deserted; Kim Il-sung’s (supposed) birthplace looks like it was built yesterday; a Catholic church (which can only be visited by appointment) gives Mass without Communion.
Kim Il-sung’s birthplace, Man’gyŏngdae (Gilad.rom / Wikimedia Commons)
As Longoria reluctantly admits, his trip to the North does little to confirm or contradict what he’s heard about the place. The limits of his supposedly “privileged access” are glaringly obvious: like most visitors to North Korea, he stays mostly within the closed city of Pyongyang, though he also stops by a communal farm that his guide weirdly describes as “restored.” To put his findings into context, Longoria depends on foreign analysts and North Koreans who were willing and able to leave the country, all of whom could have their own agendas. Despite that, these outsiders provide some of the film’s biggest insights, like Andrei Lankov’s typically droll takedown of the rulers’ oft-mystified “Juche Thought.” (“It basically says man is the master of all things, and everything has to be done in a peculiar way which is suitable for this current situation. Wonderful. Such a great philosophical discovery.”)
The Juche Tower, Pyongyang (John Pavelka / Flickr)
Longoria’s reliance on such interlocutors may be why he devotes little attention to propaganda aimed at North Koreans themselves. There is a de rigueur treatment of the Kim family’s personality cult, which Cao de Benós predictably spins as a sort of grassroots phenomenon (as though the North Korean masses even knew of Kim Jong-un’s existence before the regime acclaimed him as heir apparent). But Korean unification is barely mentioned until the film’s last ten minutes, and then only from the detached, strategic perspective of outsiders like Lankov and Barbara Demick. In fact, unification (a.k.a. ch’oehu ŭi sŭngri “the final victory”) is a major theme in North Korea’s domestic propaganda and the key to much of its conduct, including its more internationally-publicized beef with the U.S. Longoria either downplays this or failed to pick up on its significance, but Cao de Benós certainly knows better: his Korean name Cho Sŏn-il translates as “Korea is one,” and in Friends of Kim he corraled a semi-willing tour group into a “March for Korea’s Peace and Unification.”
He doesn’t try the same stunt here, perhaps because such rhetoric sounds less benign since the subsidence of South Korea’s own “unification fever.” But like Friends of Kim, The Propaganda Game suggests that Cao de Benós is more interested in conspicuous shows of ideology—a word he uses approvingly, upending its usual Marxist sense as a pejorative—than in helping anyone connect with ordinary North Koreans. (The 130-odd journalists in Pyongyang to “cover” the ongoing Party Congress are currently receiving the same treatment.) But then these priorities merely reflect those of the North Korean regime, which perversely aligns it with the lunkheaded Westerners who prefer to giggle over “unicorn lairs” or speculate on the execution of such-and-such high official. Longoria finally comes to a bitter conclusion: even for visitors, North Korea remains known primarily through propaganda, and “privileged access” to a country doesn’t come with privileged access to the truth.
The Propaganda Game screened as part of the 2016 Cine Las Americas International Film Festival and is currently streamable on Netflix.