From the comfort of a sofa, with access to information and social media, it’s hard to imagine the kind of lives described in The Propaganda Game, a documentary film by Spanish director Álvaro Longoria. Following the director’s heavily monitored visit into the mysterious country of North Korea, the film presents the outwards propaganda fed from the country’s representatives to visitors, and the thoroughly different stories described by those who have escaped the regime.
It begins in the style of a propaganda film and for much of the film we see the North Korean capital Pyongyang through an idyllic lens. Civilians that guests are presented to on the tour speak about their access to wonderful free housing and education. The city looks modern, with water parks, musical entertainment and rollerblading.
Yet something is off. Glossy hospitals and museums presented to Longoria and his film crew are empty and in one particularly stunning scene, the visitors attend a Catholic church in a country that is alleged by defectors to severely punish Christianity. The church doesn’t practise Eucharist at mass that morning though- shockingly to no one, they don’t have a priest present.
The crew’s entire trip to the country is what the film’s title suggests. It’s immersive propaganda, designed to oppress those who have tried to speak out about the truth, that North Korea is dangerous. It’s strange to listen to representatives’ impassioned speeches that present the country as something glorious, despite being bullied by the big, bad West. Despite this, the documentary reiterates the truth: the country and its leader is breaking a huge number of human rights violations in ways that we can’t see.
That’s part of the difficulty of the documentary. The only counters to the presented propaganda are soundbites from experts and North Korean citizens who have escaped. Visually we have no evidence of the true darkness behind that flimsy mask so whilst the documentary is powerful, it lacks that extra impact that visual proof would lend. Ultimately, if you choose a documentary subject that never lets you see past lies, you’re not going to be able to create something that is complete.
It’s also a pity that those who have defected aren’t given a lot of screen time. Those in the UN and Amnesty International speak passionately about the crimes committed in the country, but there are only snippets of powerful speeches by those who have experienced the atrocities first hand. More of their story would have been great.
One real strength of the film is the surprising focus on Alejandro Cao de Benos, a Spanish aristocrat who now acts as the representative of the country internationally. Another mouth that parrots the propaganda designed to preserve the strength of Kim Jong-Un, he’s striking by just how passionately he believes it. Unlike the citizens, Cao de Benos has not been born into the system but he’s bought into it with his heart and his soul and it’s almost inconceivable as to why. Without any further information into this odd character, you wonder if he is deliberately covering up or is genuinely blind to what’s going on behind the scenes.
The Propaganda Game is an interesting watch that documents a visit to the world’s most mysterious country. It’s limited by that mystery however, and whilst Álvaro Longoria portrays the unbelievable propaganda being churned out and the mask behind which the atrocities hide, the film can’t quite reach the truth behind it with the same impact.
| Jen Scouler
Documentary | USA, 2015 | 15 | Metrodome Distribution | 16th May 2016 (UK) | Dir.Álvaro Longoria |Buy:[DVD]