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On July 15, over 1,000 people gathered on the lawn of Bucheon City Hall, Gyeonggi Province, for South Korea’s first-ever public screening of a North Korean film.
Since the Korean War ended in 1953, cross-border civilian contact has been banned unless authorized by the governments of the two Koreas. Firewalls prevent South Koreans from visiting North Korean websites while written requests must be approved for accessing Northern films — which are classified as “special material” — at the state-backed Korean Film Archive in Seoul.
The outdoor screening was of The Story of Our Home, a family drama directed by Ri Yun-ho that won Best Film at the 15th Pyongyang Film Festival in 2016. It is among nine titles, including three features and six shorts, that were shown during the 21st Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival. Organizers of Asia’s largest genre film event announced that South Korean authorities approved the North Korean film showcase on July 10, which was just two days before it kicked off July 12.
The film screening took place amid what observers view as increasingly friendly inter-Korean diplomatic ties. During February’s PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, athletes from the two countries marched together bearing a unified flag while the women ice hockey players competed in a united team. In April and May, the heads of state met at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the Koreas.
“It seemed necessary to introduce North Korean movies to film industryites. I also thought North Korean films could serve as a good medium to help the general public better understand North Korea,” said Choi Yong-bae, director of the Bucheon Film Festival.
The Story of Our Home is based on the true story of a young woman who brought up seven orphans. Ri Jong-a tries to take care of three recently orphaned siblings, but the eldest refuses the help. “With some propagandistic settings and scenes in the latter stages, The Story of Our Home has been criticized for evading the subject of human rights in North Korea. [This is in spite of the issue having drawn the attention of the global community and] the film being based on a true story,” festival programmer Mo Eun-young said.
There have been some voices of opposition against the showing of North Korean propaganda films. On Friday, two protestors appeared at the screening venue of Comrade Kim Goes Flying, a 2012 Belgium-North Korea romantic comedy. The situation was quickly resolved and fest organizers maintained that festivalgoers were “mature enough” to handle such content.
“It’s difficult for us to completely endorse and understand the propaganda messages, but I think our audiences will be mature enough to watch differing views,” said Choi.
A culture researcher shared the same opinion.
“North Korean films are almost always related to political propaganda, even in a small way, so it isn’t easy for [South Koreans] to accept such messages as they are,” said Park Young-jeong, head of the state-backed Korea Culture and Tourism Institute’s arts policy research team. “I believe [South Korean audiences] have the capacity to tolerate diverse cultures and points of views.”
Meanwhile, the Bucheon Film Festival wrapped Sunday having shown 299 films from 54 countries. The closing ceremony took place Friday. This year’s closing film was Secret Superstar, an Indian film starring Aamir Khan.
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