I am not alone in this, but I’ve been thinking for a long time that North Korea is going to be the catastrophic tragedy that the world will regret not confronting differently when it had a chance. It’ll be like Rwanda or worse. What else could you call a decades-long totalitarian regime that systematically stamps out all freedoms, tortures and unlawfully imprisons its own citizens, and kills (or lets die) people by the hundreds of thousands, if not millions?
It’ll be sickening and awful, but I hope to see the day when the North Korean regime finally crumbles and we find out what really was happening within its closed borders. Until then, we have to settle with stories from the few defectors and people who have slipped in and out.
And then there are the documentaries about North Korea. They’ve been getting released in increasing numbers in recent years—heck, they’re hard to make because the most valuable element of a documentary is access and that’s in such short supply there—and with the release this Friday of The Lovers and the Despot, I’ve finally started watching some of them.
The Lovers and the Despot tells the remarkable story of a famous South Korean filmmaker who was kidnapped, along with his ex-wife, a popular actress, by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il who made them produce films to his liking. It’s an interesting tale, filled with intrigue and well worth a watch for people interested in the subject and in the power of the image and cinema.
As strong as the film is, it relies on archival footage and stories told from outside the borders. What really satisfied my desire to get an inside look at North Korea was Under the Sun, what I’d consider one of the best documentaries of 2016. Under the Sun director Vitaly Mansky, a Russian filmmaker, managed to convince the North Koreans to allow him to shoot in their country. His handlers thought it was a piece of scripted propaganda but Mansky secretly let the cameras roll in between takes to reveal the life that is flickering under the iron grip and the systemic stamping out of humanity. The heartbreaking hints of life being suppressed in a child’s face are almost too much to endure. I can’t help but feel like someone or, really, many people, are going to die or be sent away to prison camps because of their part in Mansky’s film.
As far as I can see, Under the Sun is the most revealing inside look inside the North Korean regime. For something completely different, you can watch the Vice series on the country. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from BHN (the Brooklyn Hipster Network): Vice founder Shane Smith enters the country and says, “Man, this place is weird!!” about the bizarro-nature of everything he encounters. It’s pretty enjoyable to watch, so if you want an easy way in, I’d recommend it.
A number of North Korea documentary films focus on the propaganda, including 2015’s The Propaganda Game and 2013’s Aim High in Creation. And you can’t go wrong with FRONTLINE, which has made several, including Secret State of North Korea. Then there’s Seoul Train, a 2005 Independent Lens film about the defectors’ journey to China, which won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award.
I’m just sticking my toe in the subject. If you have suggestions for your favorite North Korea docs, please post a comment below.