What Counts As Propaganda?

Note: Below I compare two documentaries on North Korea that came out in October 2015. They offer a sort of “blind men and the elephant” view of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.

With tensions in the East Asia rising due to tidal waves of bellicose rhetoric, might we investigate the nature of some of these words? Both Spanish documentarian Álvaro Longoria, and Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky, chose to tackle the immense North Korean propaganda machine by embedding themselves in it, albeit from different points of view.

Both The Propaganda Game and Under the Sun came out in the 2015, riding on the heels not only of the mess of a release of the comedy The Interview, a film about the assassination of the North Korean leader. That three movies on one of the most secretive regimes in the world would come out within a year of one another seems odd but I imagine with recent events, we may see it happen again.

Longoria takes a wide view of the situation on the small, heavily armed peninsula. A good portion of the film involves talks with many of the state minders that undoubtedly follow his crew like a pack of wolves ready to jump on any deviation from the planned itinerary. But not to bury the lead, the real reason to watch The Propaganda Game comes from Alejandro de Benós, a former Spanish national who is an unabashed supporter (or puppet) of the North Korean regime and, I suspect, the original motivation for Longoria’s interest in the DPRK. de Banós is quite comical in his representation of his adopted homeland but his new fellow countrymen seem to eat it up in droves. The interviews with security officials in Spain and around the world offer a little more nuanced, and critical, view of him.

Under the Sun, in contrast, takes a subtler approach to filmmaking. Mansky takes an approach more consistent with reality TV programming where he just keeps the camera rolling. Instead of mocking the system outright as Longoria does, he follows the official line 100%, included re-shoot after re-shoot of “real” North Korean families (read: actors) going about their business. It’s much more a movie about making a movie than a documentary about North Korea, but in a state where it’s impossible to separate reality and official doublethink images, it offers a brutal look at the country. You will hear the official history of North Korea so many times that the film itself acts as its own form of propaganda. This is partially why I couldn’t finish Under the Sun. It made me too uncomfortable but in a sense that shows the power of its imagery.

Either way, you’ll learn a lot about North Korea and see some beautiful scenery and (some) earnest people as a surprising number of people buy into the official line, whether by coercion or choice, frankly, is irrelevant to the regime. Whether you need some humor to get through the film or are willing to endure almost dark satire of Under the Sun, you’ll find a very ugly elephant in the room.

Title: The Propaganda Game // Under the Sun
Country of Origin: Spain (North Korea) // Russia (North Korea)
Genre: Documentary
Released: 2015 // 2015
Run Time: 98 Minutes // 90 Minutes
Director: Álvaro Longoria (Spain) // Vitaly Mansky (Russia)

This article was originally written in 2016 and has been posted with minor updates. 

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