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A Week After Nuke Tests, North Korea Holds an International Film Festival

Pyongyang’s biennial cinema fest offers a rare glimpse of the outside world inside the ‘Hermit Kingdom.’

This undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 25, 2016 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) laughing as he inspects a test-fire of strategic submarine-launched ballistic missile at an undisclosed location. / AFP / KCNA / KNS / South Korea OUT / REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT  / SOUTH KOREA OUT ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PHOTO IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP.  /         (Photo credit should read KNS/AFP/Getty Images)
This undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 25, 2016 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) laughing as he inspects a test-fire of strategic submarine-launched ballistic missile at an undisclosed location. / AFP / KCNA / KNS / South Korea OUT / REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT / SOUTH KOREA OUT ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PHOTO IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP. / (Photo credit should read KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

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

Kavitha Surana is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy, where she produces breaking news and original reports with a particular focus on immigration, counterterrorism, and border security policy. Previously, Kavitha worked at New York magazine’s Bedford + Bowery blog, CNNMoney, The Associated Press in Italy, and Fareed Zakaria GPS and has freelanced from Italy and Germany for publications like Quartz, Al Jazeera America, OZY, and GlobalPost/PRI. In 2015, she was awarded a Fulbright trip to Germany, as well as a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation to report on migration and integration. She also reported from Rwanda and Senegal. Kavitha studied European history at Columbia University and holds a master’s degree in journalism and European studies from New York University. She has studied in Italy and Peru and speaks Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. @ksurana6

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