One filmmaker's recent travels to North Korea showed him its people are not only hungry for Western movies, but well versed in screen language too.
By
Anne Lin

5 Jan 2015 - 1:34 PM  UPDATED 27 Jan 2015 - 8:51 PM

Blamed for the recent Sony hack, making news for its nuclear ambitions, and caricatured in tumblr blogs, to most people North Korea remains an enigmatic place.

So when acclaimed Indigenous-Australian director Ivan Sen got invited to see his film Mystery Road screen at the 2014 Pyongyang International Film Festival (PIFF), he jumped at the chance.

"When I heard that they wanted to screen it, it was a bit of a shock," Sen said of his 2013 genre film.

"Because you know a lot of people in Australia don't understand it. Even in American people struggled with the accent, so I think it must be pretty difficult for the North Korean festival spectators as well."

Ivan Sen together with the noticeboard outside of Taedongmun Cinema where Mystery Road’s screening details were listed. (Photo credit: Alek Sigley)

Origins of the festival

While the Hermit Kingdom may only have recently introduced the internet and mobile phones to its elite citizens in Pyongyang, one thing North Koreans take very seriously is cinema – a legacy of their former leader Kim Jong-Il.

Such was his passion for films that even during the most chronic electricity shortages of the 1990's and early 2000's the local cinema in most North Korean towns would still be operating, projecting the next propaganda filled masterpiece – most often with the finishing touches added by the Dear Leader himself.

While North Korea has a lot of film history, diversity is something that is lacking because the industry is heavily regulated. Indeed, most of the local movies are very didactic. The key message these films generally have is that the answer to whatever problems that the character is facing, is to strengthen their loyalty to the leader, the party and nation. 

Kim Jong-il saw value in a movie's potential for propaganda and wrote books on the subject from "On The Art of Cinema" to "The Cinema and Directing".

According to Johannes Schönherr, author of "North Korean Cinema", Kim Jong Il finally gave the festival the green light in 1987.

Unlike Cannes, Toronto, or Sundance, there's no red carpet or paparazzi, and rarely any interaction nor Q&A's between the filmmaker and audience.

The ticket prices are kept pretty low so they can attract the general public. Even so, Mystery Road's all four sessions were sold out and people had to be turned away.

"They were like starved, you could see it," said Sen.

Given the great lengths North Korea goes to shield itself from foreign cultural influences, the PIFF is about the only chance that locals get to legally watch films of Western origin.

"They love cinema, they seem very excited, [there was an] amazing energy, excited to see a film from abroad. You really do sense that they’re very keen to get a feel of what's going on," said Sen. 

The film trailer for Ivan Sen's movie Mystery Road

North Koreans 'have very good grasp of film language'

Mystery Road is a murder-mystery film about an Indigenous cop who is called into a rural town in outback Queensland to investigate the death of a teenage girl.

Sen remembered feeling some "pretty heavy gasps" from the audience when the young body was found at the beginning of the film. 

"If you've grown up on another planet and never seen a film before ... it'll be difficult to understand what you're supposed to understand, because screen language is where each shot is there to tell the story, where you’ve been conditioned to understand and follow it," he said.

"When you've got I guess a group of people who haven't experienced much, they’re hyper sensitive to what the film can offer on many different levels. But in saying that, they do have very good grasp of film language. They obviously can follow a story quite well; can understand what’s going on, what the shots mean."

Sen hopes viewers would have developed a greater understanding of Australia’s situation as far as indigenous Australians are concerned.

"To understand there is an indigenous population here, and they’ve been living under circumstances of colonisation and assimilation for a long time and having to deal with that."

Sen believes the role of film in general can be so much more profound than most people realise.

"I love film because it has a chance to be an art form on occasion; and on that occasion it can have profound effects upon not just the viewers but communities, countries and the world," he adds. 

A scene from Ivan Sen's indigenous western, Mystery Road, starring Aaron Pedersen. (AAP)

How do Western countries view North Korea and vice versa?

For all the hype and fallout over Sony's political-action comedy The Interview, Sen also thinks that there is undoubtedly an unfair stereotype that the West has about North Korea.

"There's all kind of untruths that get thrown around into the Western media about North Korea and a lot of them does come from south of the border originally and gets sent around the world, and [published] in legitimate press," Sen said.  

"They're very friendly ... even if they've been sort of raised with this anti-foreign propaganda."

Alek Sigley, a university student who runs educational travel tours to the country agrees. He says Western mainstream media's coverage tends to be more on the sensationalist side.

"It's reminiscent of not only the cold war sort of mistrust that people might have had for the Soviet Union, but there could be this element of inscrutable oriental, and they manifest irrationality."

"[The Western media] sort of propagates this image of North Korea that it is not particularly nuanced, and ironically it is simplistic, reductionist and flawed, in just the same way the propaganda that they [North Koreans] are fed about the West," Sigley said. 

It was through Sigley's repeated visits to North Korea that he got to know festival organisers who asked him to send over a selection of Australian content. He says their isolation from the international film community means it's quite difficult to obtain foreign films. 

Out of the dozens of movies Sigley recommended for screening, Sen's Mystery Road and Kim Mordaunt's The Rocket were chosen.

Sigley said North Koreans have this view that the West is this "decadent and grim place".

"They know about kangaroos, and Australian products like lanolin cream and Aussie beef, they're aware of that reputation for high quality but in terms of Australian people I guess they don't know that much. I mean we don't have an embassy in Pyongyang, and much of the propaganda features the Americans and the Japanese so I guess we're relatively off the radar."

Despite this, Sigley believes North Koreans are genuinely interested in the outside world.

"They're very friendly, they're very curious, and even if they've been sort of raised with this anti-foreign propaganda. I still think when they meet foreigners in person, they can differentiate between that abstraction of the "bad foreigner" and the individual people that they meet," Sigley said.

Writing in ABC's The Drum, Sigley said of the Sony hacking scandal: "It is no surprise the release of The Interview was greeted with such opposition in North Korea, where cinema has long been used as a central propaganda tool for spreading state ideology".

Diana Bang, as Sook, Seth Rogen, as Aaron, and James Franco, as Dave, in Columbia Pictures' "The Interview." (AAP)

Lessons and inspiration from Pyongyang

With the way the festival was structured, Sen didn't get much opportunity to have one-on-one interaction with the people, but there was "a lot of non-verbal communication going on".

"When they found out we were the filmmaker, they were just staring, like trying to get a sense of who I was kind of thing."

Sen says the biggest thing that came out of that trip was the reminder to be aware of how he represents different communities in his work.

"As a person and filmmaker, [I learned] to be very conscious about portraying different nationalities and demonising nationalities. When you don't have contact with places or people you fall into the trap of everyone else. [This applies] not only for North Korea but Russia or any kind of place, just to be careful in any kind of work."

Sigley told SBS events like the PIFF can help facilitate greater cultural exchange between countries.

"I think it's really good in that regard to provide this opportunity [for North Koreans] to see these films and to see Australians are ordinary people who at the end of the day love, laugh and cry in the same way that they do. They break down barriers and both sides can sort of become more aware of what they have in common, their shared humanity. It sounds clichéd but it's the truth. I think it's very important thing," Sigley said.

Sen hopes to one day go back to North Korea and make a film, a vision he wouldn't have dreamt up if it wasn't for this trip.

"There's a strange kind of purity which I connected with, the absence of all the advertising, billboards kind of thing, the walls are quite stark but at the same time it's quite beautiful.

"It’s just a sense of simplicity everywhere which I found to be quite artistic … very pure and doesn’t have all the coverings which you get from our Western capitalist society," he said.

"As a filmmaker I just thought wow this is an amazing place to set a story or just everything fleshed back. It did remind me of South Korea a lot [but] it feels like the future."