North Korea’s Very Cautious Cinematic Thaw

4 12 2008

By MALTE HERWIG, The New York Times (November 21, 2008)

The Pyongyang International Cinema House was packed for screenings at North Korea’s film festival in September 2008.

The Pyongyang International Cinema House was packed for screenings at North Korea’s film festival in September 2008 (copyright MALTE HERWIG).

HUMOR may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the citizens of North Korea, a country known mostly for militant anti-Western propaganda, chronic food shortages and an internationally isolated government pursuing nuclear weapons. And yet audiences at the 11th Pyongyang International Film Festival here clearly enjoyed themselves this fall during screenings of Western dramas and comedies, occasionally even erupting into riotous laughter.

In most other countries movies like Marcus H. Rosenmüller’s “Heavyweights,” a lighthearted comedy about a group of Bavarian villagers contending in the 1952 Winter Olympics, would be harmless fun. But not in North Korea, and to prove it there was a man with a piece of cardboard sitting in the projection room to cover the lens in case anything deemed unseemly to Korean eyes was shown.

That day, mercifully, the cardboard-wielding censor wasn’t particularly good at his job. His hapless attempts to maintain officially sanctioned decency only added to the amusement of the 2,000 moviegoers in the gigantic Pyongyang International Cinema House, who responded energetically to the sight of a half-dozen outsize German bobsledders baring their bottoms and stuffing themselves with food and beer to gain weight for a competition. It was an unusual sight in this corner of the world, to say the least…

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