It isn’t just North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and his closest confidants, like Dennis Rodman, that get to enjoy the limited spoils of the recluse nation. A new documentary called "The Great North Korean Picture Show" peers inside the lives of Pyongyang’s propaganda-pushing privileged.
Singaporean filmmakers Lynn Lee and James Leong offer an unprecedented look inside the communist state’s propaganda-filled film industry. They went through various legal channels in order to film in the country from 2008 to 2010, which meant having to submit a lot of their footage to the Pyongyang government for approval. As the first foreigners to film inside Pyongyang’s top arts institution, the University of Cinematic and Dramatic Arts, Lee and Leong viewed a lifestyle that has virtually been unheard of in North Korea. What they ended up discovering went beyond the scope of the country’s state-run film industry, and into the intimate and personal details of the country’s privileged: the people who work in film and theater and live a life of surprising sophistication.
According to the Korea Herald, the 94-minute documentary, which premiered at the DMZ Korean International Documentary Film Festival last week, reveals Pyongyang’s young leading performers, who “hum Tchaikovsky, live in Pyongyang’s modern apartment complexes and worry about gaining weight while attending the country’s most prestigious film and theater school.”
The film spotlights people like Yun-mi, a young lady studying to be an actress, and Eun-beom, the son of two famous North Korean thespians, who aspires to one day become an actor as well -- thus, two students at the school who are following their dreams of being performers and ultimately carrying on North Korean traditions through performance propaganda. To them, the term propaganda loses its meaning, because their privileged status has led them to believe that their life is North Korea’s only reality. “For someone like Yun-mi who has known nothing but privilege all her life, you know, who lives in a very comfortable apartment, who has everything that she can desire, having the job of making propaganda praising the state -- she has no problem doing that because she really believes in it,” Lee said. “It is her life.”
Outside the context of being a young North Korean woman, and the daughter of a high-ranking science official, Yun-mi leads a very typical young adult life. According to the report, Yun-mi has gone through some of the typical “coming of age”-type struggles with her parents, like pursuing a career in acting. The documentary even shows candid and casual interactions with her family and classmates, like when she openly whines to her mom, who doesn’t let her drink coffee, and childishly greets her father when he gets home from work. Similar to other students throughout the world, she and close friend Eun-beom commiserate over dragging themselves to classes that they don’t want to go to -- but for them, it’s their dance classes.
Though the film was subjected to many restrictions and censorship, the report claims it is still able to drive home an unaffected view of a certain part of North Korea: the inner most circles of Pyongyang’s young and fortunate elite. Yet the image one gains of North Korea is not as sinister as many would believe; indeed, between the walls of propaganda, a strangely charming view of North Korea emerges.