‘The Propaganda Game’: San Sebastian Review

Courtesy of Memento Films
Inevitably intriguing because of its subject, but not because of its treatment.

A Spaniard visits North Korea to try to separate the truth from the lies.

“If somebody is able to intimidate us out of releasing a satirical movie,” said President Barack Obama last year in response to the 2014 North Korean cyberattack on Sony Pictures, “imagine what they start doing once they see a documentary that they don't like.” It’s a nice introduction for a documentary about North Korea, and Spanish producer/director Alvaro Longoria duly seizes his chance with The Propaganda Game, effectively a well-mounted video diary of his short visit to the country. Inevitably it's fascinating, as guided visits to monsters’ lairs must be, but inevitably it's more superficial than anyone  Longoria included, presumably -- would like. There are already docus out there which have gone more deeply  and dangerously  into the country than this, but its fresh, distinctive take on how the other half lives  or doesn't live  still merits fest play at politically-themed festivals.

Longoria’s aim is to reveal the tensions between two propaganda machines  one internal, dedicated to keeping the country’s 24 million inhabitants happy, and one global, dedicated to proving to the West that North Korea is little more than a political freak show in which, for example, the head of state executes his uncle by feeding him to wild dogs.

Longoria enters North Korea with an open mind, having been given exclusive, but carefully controlled access, to parts of the country which other Western media don’t reach. He’s aided in this by the extraordinary figure of Alejandro Cao, a 40-year-old Spaniard who also happens to be the Special Delegate on North Korea’s Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries and whose job it is to massage North Korea’s image for the West. A man who would be prepared to lay down his life for the revolution, he is the film’s only “character”. Canny editing by Alex Marquez and Victoria Lammers means that the Cao we meet at the start is a smiling, friendly and reasonable figure. But by the end, he seems a lot less rational, and even to Western ears, unbalanced in his passionate defense of the party line.

Experts are interviewed, offering a range of opinions, as well as locals, who basically offer only one. One interviewee starts crying on screen at the memory of Kim Jong-iI’s death in 2011 (are her tears real or for the camera?), and a couple of others insist on the value of a government which offers free health care (but little medicine), free education (but hey, you have to pay the price of a little propaganda) and paid housing (but you don’t get to choose). Everyone’s spouting a line. But the deeper question is, do they believe the line they’re spouting? Longoria can’t go deep enough to answer that one.

Surreal moments abound. Longoria visits a wedding in the demilitarized zone. He inquires into the rumor that North Korean women have a choice of eighteen authorized hairstyles from which to choose. (Which is a lie: but it may be true.) He reflects on an education system in which children are taught that the U.S. is basically responsible for all the country’s ills (with some truly astounding classroom graphics showing the U.S. military attacking innocent Korean victims, including a baby). The issue of The Interview is dealt with, as is the darker human rights side to the freak show. So that in case you’re wondering, don’t worry: apparently there are no concentration camps in North Korea. (Which is true: but it may be a lie.)

Longoria has the air of the fascinated tourist about him, and as a persona it works. When talking to camera, he seems to alternate randomly between English and Spanish, while the sound is sometimes muffled  the legacies of a shoot which must have been hastily improvised but which lends a real documentary urgency to some scenes.

By the end, you realize that the film offers few answers, but one big, unanswered question: has The Propaganda Game itself been authorized for screening? There’s nothing to suggest not. So that despite Longoria’s best intentions his film, far from being objective, is itself a part of the game, and supplies just yet more ammunition for both sides.

Production company: Morena Films
Director: Alvaro Longoria
Screenwriter: Alvaro Longoria
Producer: Alvaro Longoria, Alexandra Lebret, Tanja Georgieva
Directors of photography: Diego Dussuel, Rita Noriega
Production designer:
Editor: Alex Marquez, Victoria Lammers
Composer: Fernando Velazquez
Sales: Memento Film

No rating, 81 minutes