Spanish director, Alvoro Longoria went to North Korea with an open mind – just not quite as open as he would like to think.
– And that’s basically the problem at the heart of this very well shot and very well intentioned documentary. Because if you go looking for facts to a country schizophrenically portrayed in the West as something akin to a clown riding a tricycle armed with nuclear warheads, you need to get your own facts straight first. Instead of setting out with the theme already packed in his suitcase, it feels as if Longoria discovered the title of his film by accident while he was making it, the upshot being that his open brief left his open mind ill equipped to shed much light.
The film begins with an onslaught of U.S. propaganda, pedalled by ABC and NBC News, screaming about nuclear threats and imminent danger, and every bit as paranoid as anything North Korea is accused of turning out.
It’s a promising introduction that culminates with President Obama’s condemnation in 2014 of the hackers that allegedly threatened 9/11 style revenge unless Sony Pictures withdrew its new film, The Interview. “We cannot have a society in which, some dictator can start imposing censorship in the United States,” he pontificates.
This opening salvo appears to lay the groundwork for some serious interrogation of the facts. After all, less than two months after the FBI blamed North Korea for this bizarre hack attack, it was revealed to be the work of one disgruntled Sony employee. But a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth, and by the time The Propaganda Game was released nine months later, the official fairytale was so firmly embedded in the public mind it would have taken a bulldozer of reality to shift it. The trouble is, the director himself doesn’t even try. In a documentary all about propaganda, that’s quite an alarming irony.
Indeed, when he asks his guide whether she thinks her country would have been invaded if it didn’t possess nuclear weapons, her reply is so categorical that it was enthusiastically used to juice up the trailer. “Most probably, yes,” she asserts.
We are not asked to examine her fear: simply to gawp at it like a freak show exhibit through our Free World Incorporated spectacles, and the viewer is left to surmise that this young woman is a paranoid product of the system. Yet one only needs to flick through the U.S. government’s back catalogue of terror and abuses in its own Latin American backyard – Guatemala, Chile, Nicaragua, Venezuela, to name but a few – to see what happens to a country that dares to go its own way in defiance of “The Empire.”
If the director had offered this historical perspective, such paranoia might begin to look disturbingly well founded.
There are moments in the film when Longoria succeeds in lifting the veil on our own manipulated perceptions of a happily indoctrinated people, and in debunking the mythology of a comic book dictator who feeds family members to rabid dogs and hands out edicts on acceptable hairstyles. But while he makes a good fist of showing that propaganda swings both ways, there comes a point where he begins to look like any other disoriented tourist, and loses his balance.
There’s an all too respectful reliance on the authority of Western journalists who come from the same media outlets that dutifully spun the Sony story, and he edits the film so that his main character devolves from a rational man into a deluded tool of the state. And yet, despite Longoria’s own attempt at perception manipulation, the extraordinary Alejandro Cao de Benós, a Spaniard and self adopted North Korean who would give his life for the motherland, emerges with his dignity intact and arguably less brainwashed than an average viewer of CNN.
“There is no democracy, no free press, whatever bullshit,” he says, “This is a propaganda war.”
At least he recognises it.
Ultimately, Longoria comes to the conclusion that the truth is hard to know, and with this statement he unwittingly stumbles on the whole point of his film: it’s not what we know about North Korea that we need to worry about. It’s what we don’t know about ourselves.
Verdict: 3 stars
Written at the Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival) – February 2016