One of the world’s most tightly-controlled societies got a rare glimpse of the outside world at the Pyongyang International Film Festival last week, where even Western films were screened. Communist North Korea strictly controls access to information, including via mobile phones and the Internet, leaving most North Koreans in ignorance of the wider world. A tour guide had never heard of the late pop star Michael Jackson. Yet participants in the 12th Pyongyang International Film Festival, which ended on September 24, say it helped open a window for the impoverished country.
Only a minority of the population was able to attend the event, but it gave them access to documentaries, feature films and shorts from several European countries and Canada. Productions from Asia, Russia, the Middle East and elsewhere were also on the programme. Henrik Nydqvist, a freelance film producer who was Sweden’s official delegate to the eight-day event, said anything which breaks North Korea’s isolation is positive. “We think we’re doing something good here,” he said. “We feel we can make some positive impact… and that outweighs the other things.”
The festival has its own venue, the Pyongyang International Cinema House, which includes a 2,000-seat theatre as well as other smaller halls. Red, blue and green neon signs hanging in the atrium beam the country’s foreign policy slogan: “Peace, independence, friendship”. A 300-seat hall was almost completely filled with Koreans for an afternoon screening of the comedy “Pieces d’Identites” from Congo. They sat quietly behind padlocked doors in a hot, airless room for the story of an African king who travels to Belgium in search of his daughter, who has been forced to work as a nude dancer.
The film’s images include bordellos and a heaving African nightclub, depicting a world alien to North Koreans who are bombarded with propaganda from childhood and whose showpiece capital Pyongyang appears to be stuck in a time decades past. Such images can only help to bring about change, said a source connected with the film festival. “They have in mind: Why is North Korea, my country, different?” Connections are required to gain admission and authorities do not want the rural masses outside of the capital to see foreign movies, he said. “I watched some poor people who wanted to see the movie, and the guard stopped them.”
At the event’s closing ceremony attended by more than 1,500 people, including foreign diplomats, Nydqvist read a letter of thanks to Kim Jong-Il, ruler of the country which has twice tested nuclear weapons and is under various United States and United Nations sanctions. “The Pyongyang International Film Festival is unique,” the letter said, thanking Kim for his “care and interest.” Such messages are common practice in the country, Nydqvist said.
Kim, 68, is said to have a collection of 20,000 Hollywood movies, and engineered the kidnap in 1978 of a South Korean director to help him make films. He has also written books about movie-making, including one slim volume which says cinema “has the task of contributing to the development of people to be true communists and to the revolutionisation and working-classisation of the whole of society.” At Pyongyang’s Korean Film Studio, the country’s centre of film production, a director said Kim had visited “on more than 500 occasions”. Kim has also provided “guidance” to the film festival, Nydqvist said, citing organisers of the event. But the ailing Kim’s time on the political stage appears to be nearing an end.
On Thursday, 30 Sep., the regime released the first-ever official photograph of Kim Jong-Il’s youngest son Kim Jong-Un, which analysts said confirms the young man’s status as leader-in-waiting. Jong-Un, believed aged about 27, has assumed powerful posts in North Korea’s ruling party, state media said after the Workers’ Party of Korea held its highest-level meeting in 30 years on Tuesday. Whether he shares his father’s cinematic obsession is unknown but Jong-Un did have an interest in Hollywood tough-guy Jean-Claude Van Damme, say staff and friends at Swiss international schools where he studied, according to newspaper reports.
Several North Korean films were screened at the festival, including “Hong Kil Dong,” a 1986 production about a type of Robin Hood martial arts fighter in ancient times, whose flute-playing induces terror in the villains. The festival programme listed Germany’s “Four Minutes”, the Serbian documentary “Let There Be Light”, and Swedish feature “As It Is In Heaven” among the many international offerings.
An organising committee chooses delegates from among those who apply, Nydqvist said, adding their expenses in Pyongyang are paid for but airfare is not. A Briton and a Vietnamese were among the members of the film jury which chose a Chinese film, “Walking to School,” as the grand prize winner. China won at the previous festival, too, but Nydqvist said: “I’ve never heard anything suggesting that the jury was encouraged to favour a specific country…”