Spanish director Alvaro Longoria talks to Young Post about making The Propaganda Game, his documentary on North Korea.
How did you manage to get access to film in North Korea?
I produced some documentaries with [director] Oliver Stone on Fidel Castro (Comandante, Looking for Fidel) and we tried to do a documentary on North Korea, but we never got any reply. So for years I was trying with no success. And then one day I read about Alejando Cao de Benos in the press, who was the only foreigner who works for the government of North Korea. I looked him up on Facebook, and I sent him a message. And the next day we were discussing the possibility of the documentary. It took me one year to negotiate the conditions because at the beginning they wanted to have editorial control over the film, and of course I could not accept that.
What restrictions did the North Koreans want to impose on your film?
In the beginning they were trying to avoid some of the bigger criticisms by the Western press, especially about the human rights abuses, but I told them, I was going to interview Amnesty International – it’s not negotiable. If they are going to control who I’m going to interview then I cannot do the movie. I told them I’m going to show your version of the world, but I will also show the highly critical versions of what is going on. In the end they accepted. The only condition that they gave was I had to be accompanied by a guide at all times, that if at any time in North Korea they ask us to stop shooting, we have to. And if we did not follow the rules they could take all the materials from us, which was really the bigger risk, that we lose all the materials. They are quite paranoid about foreign press.
What didn’t they allow you to film?
Basically anything military. Checkpoints, guns, stuff like that. That was pretty much it.
Why did you decide to angle the film to be about propaganda?
In the months before shooting, I found that I was being subject to all kinds of propaganda myself. People were giving me information that was obviously not complete or impartial. Everything about North Korea seemed to have an extreme or grotesque point of view. I said this is amazing, I haven’t even gone there and already I have so many influences. I have a feeling that people were afraid that I would act as a propaganda tool for the North Koreans. People from the South Korean embassy in Madrid came to my office several times and gave briefings on what I was going to see, what I should focus on, that kind of thing. Afterwards they also sent me books and information about refugee camps. I think they were trying to make sure that I did not miss these points. And then when I was in Pyongyang, I went to the German embassy. They put me into a huge safe, told me I was in the only place in North Korea where I wasn’t being listened to, and gave me a two and a half hour briefing on what was going on in the country. So I thought it would be interesting to focus on propaganda – something that affects everybody in the world on a daily basis.
You said in the film that if you had stayed longer, you might have been brainwashed as well.
I have no doubt. I was there for ten days, but if I were to live there forever, I would believe everything they say. The propaganda works very well. It’s very sophisticated and we are easy targets for propaganda. I could see very clearly how easily propaganda can work on me, and it was a big shock.
Even after all that you’ve read about North Korea?
Obviously I knew what I was going to see, but my approach to it was to be non-confrontative with the North Koreans. Most problems with foreign press when they go to North Korea is essentially they are kept in a bubble where they can only see certain monuments. The key to my documentary was to try to get out of that. So that’s why I tried to empathise with them and try to be receptive and accepting of their point of view. And it did work. After four or five days they started to relax and they were not so convinced that I was a spy. But that made me kind of subject to my own technique. You start agreeing with them on some things. And obviously you’re impressed by what you see, because they only show you the best things. But then of course, a lot of the things I saw I’m sure are staged, like when they showed me a house that was supposedly like the ones everybody in the country lives in, it’s obviously not true. It’s an extremely good house for any society in the world.
Was filming technically difficult?
The fact that our crew was cut down from five to three two days before the trip made our lives very complicated. We had three cameras, each of our crew was operating one and we were all doing sound as well. We had a big Sony camera that was supposed to do the “propaganda aesthetics” shots, to give the grand look for North Korea that I wanted. Then we had a medium camera which was for the interviews, and then I had my own smaller camera, which was for details and picking up precious moments. And then we stuck go pros onto the car. We were filming all the time, from the moment we left the hotel until the moment we go to sleep, and then at night we had to spend most of our sleeping time downloading the material to be able to go again out the next morning.
What was the most memorable moment for you in North Korea?
I think the highlight of the movie was when I visited the church. It was not in the itinerary and I had to fight hard to get access. I told them I am a Christian and I really wanted to go to church. In the end they allowed me. But the fact that getting permission to go to a church was such a big issue tells a lot, and obviously the church seemed like a big theatre. The whole thing looks fake. That was really amazing. I could not have asked for a better moment because it encompasses the whole thing about the propaganda from the North Koreans.
At any point did you feel genuinely scared?
I was at all times kind of worried about losing the material, because if they took the material it would be a disaster for me. There was a point when we were in a hotel and there was a Canadian tourist who had taken photos without permission. They took away the hard disk of his computer. It turned out that he was a reporter who had gotten into the country without the official visa. That was really an intense moment because he got really scared. At that point I thought it could easily escalate and it could affect me, because I was right there when it happened. I felt really nervous.
Were there moments when you and your guides just had fun together?
Alejandro is a very well-trained propaganda machine. I spent maybe 20 days with him, and never once did I see him lower his guard. He’s very solid. And this is even more so for the North Koreans. For the first few days they would not even speak to me. Thanks to Alejandro they started to relax and be more open. He told them, “This guy, he’s not like the others, he’s much more professional, he’s a filmmaker and not a press person”, so he helped somewhat to lower their guard. But I never saw any resilience or criticism. They know what they’re doing. But we developed a very good relationship and there were moments of entertainment. We went for karaoke, dinners, ping pong. And you can see that they are normal people, like everyone else. They live in a very contained and programmed society but they are not much different.
How did Alejandro react to your film?
He’s not upset with me about the final result, which for me was kind of surprising because it contains many highly critical moments that I thought would be unacceptable for him. But he thinks that that side is neutralised by the fact that we have managed to show their point of view. He told me it’s the first time ever a North Korean is seen eating an ice cream. That kind of thing will make him very happy.
What are you working on now?
I am now working on a movie about climate change. When we talk about global warming there’s a lot of manipulation and misinformation I’m very interest in that. I am finishing a 15-minute short about a trip on a Greenpeace boat to the Arctic. It’s called Esperanza, and it will hopefully come out this year in festivals. And then the feature film will be sometime next year.
The Propaganda Game is showing at cinemas now.