- By Kavitha SuranaKavitha Surana is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She has reported from Italy, Germany, and Senegal and her stories have been published in the past by the Associated Press, Quartz, Al Jazeera, CNN, GlobalPost and OZY. She holds a joint master’s degree in journalism and European and Mediterranean studies from New York University.
North Korea just set off global alarm bells, launching its fifth and largest nuclear test earlier this month and drawing recriminations from the international community. One week later, the country busied itself with glitz and glamor and yet another cry for attention, holding the Pyongyang International Film Festival.
On Friday it wrapped up the week-long extravaganza, awarding the the Torch Prize, North Korea’s slightly-less coveted version of an Oscar, to Story About My House, a state-sponsored drama about a young woman who devotes her life to raising orphans and is honored by the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
Even though North Korea is often nicknamed “The Hermit Kingdom,” the biennial festival actually accepts films from all over — as long as they don’t undermine the country’s political message, of course. When it first began in 1987, the festival only allowed films from members of the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of countries that refused to ally themselves with either the United States or Russia during the Cold War, but in 2002 they opened it up to all countries.
This year, the pool of submissions was a bit smaller than usual, but there were films from Germany, France, Syria, and the Philippines. And foreign entries do have a chance of winning: Last year it was a German-produced story about the war in Kosovo.
The festival presents a rare moment for North Koreans to see cinema from the outside world and theaters are typically filled to the gills with excited filmgoers who often react to the screen audibly with “oohs,” “ahhs” and sometimes screams. It’s primarily intended for the local audience, so the films aren’t subtitled in English and only 10 foreign visitors are allowed to fly in and attend, under strict supervision.
North Korea’s film industry, not surprisingly, has a different history than the West’s. Kim Jong Il, the father and predecessor of Kim Jong Un, was said to be a huge film buff with a personal library of more than 20,000 film prints.
Back in 1978 he even kidnapped a famous South Korean movie director and his actress wife and forced them to make propaganda films for him. A documentary about the stranger-than-fiction tale, The Lovers and the Despot, was released today in the West, a fitting parallel to the highly curated North Korean affair.
The documentary was not shown at the Pyongyang Film Festival.
Photo credit: KNS/AFP/Getty Images