Poland was one of the first countries to make a high-profile international documentary about North Korea. The country may seem like an unlikely contender for such an undertaking, but its film was warmly received, not least by North Korea itself. The country got the invite because, at the time of filming in 1988, it was still a communist nation and considered an ally by Pyongyang. Defilada was filmed during the 40th anniversary of the founding of the state by Kim il-Sung, and focusses on the cult of personality surrounding the late leader. Despite being comprised entirely of footage approved by the state, director Andrzej Fidyk manages to convey a heavily anti-authoritarian subtext through deft editing rather than explicit commentary. It has now been co-opted into Poland’s educational curriculum in some schools and colleges in order to illustrate the bleak realities of totalitarianism.
Another European documentary, this time about a pair of Danish-Korean comedians who embark on a tour of the DPRK as part of a ‘cultural exchange’, whereas in reality they are casting a scathing eye over the regime and its grim pantomime of daily life. The Red Chapel is a singularly brave piece of filmmaking, not least because one of its protagonists must confront a debilitating physical condition in a state notorious for its inhuman treatment of the disabled. The film was also a hit with critics, winning the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Japanese director Yang Yong-hi is one of the great mavericks of Asian cinema, thanks to the way she has turned her Korean ethnicity to her creative advantage. In this documentary, she chronicles her relationship with her father, an ardent Communist and supporter of the regime in the North. His daughter was repatriated and stayed in Japan, but the rest of her family remains in North Korea, and their lives are in constant jeopardy. Unflinching but also at times tender, the film looks at what drives parents to break families apart and attempts to make sense of how human beings can support a political doctrine that seems so at odds with human decency.
Dennis Rodman, flamboyant one-time superstar of the NBA, is the star of this film by director Colin Offland. With a title that could easily pass for an adult film, DRBBIP focusses on the efforts of the scarlet-haired sportsman as he attempts to forge closer links with North Korea through the medium of basketball. Rodman travels with a squad of young American basketballers in tow, hoping for a cultural exchange with their hoop-loving counterparts, but the trip is beset by culture clashes and complications brought about by Rodman’s inflated ego. The film culminates in an epic showdown between the two teams, with the prestige of both nations at stake. Irreverent but always interesting, the film’s light-hearted approach contrasts with a look at the unexpected ways in which sport impacts people’s lives, and the problematic nature of celebrity.
While we’re sticking with the theme of sport, make sure you check out this must-see feature from filmmaker Daniel Gordon. In 2003, a British film crew accompanied a pair of North Korean child gymnasts as they trained for that year’s Mass Games, an annual event which combines a sporting spectacular with brutalist ideological propaganda. With an extraordinary level of access to the comings and goings of daily life in North Korea (the film crew experienced little or no interference from the state), the movie’s deceptively simple storytelling masks a deeper look at issues surrounding individuality, the human spirit, the nature of propaganda and the power and dynamism of youth. Featuring extraordinary displays of athleticism and compelling protagonists, this is one of the best films made yet about its subject matter.
The only work of narrative fiction on this list, Meet in Pyongyang is a Chinese-North Korean co-production, the first of its kind in 60 years. While its story is fictional, it offers a highly believable portrait of life in North Korea that is just as vivid as any of the other films mentioned above. The story concerns the relationship between a pair of dancers as they prepare for a major sporting event in the capital, learning major lessons from each other about how they live their lives, practice their craft and fit into the state’s vision for a collective under autonomous rule. Parts of the movie are unabashed propaganda as the two nations pat each other on the back for their adherence to the noble Communist struggle, but the film has much more to offer besides; despite their loose status as allies, North Korea is just as mysterious to many Chinese as it is to Westerners, and this nebulousness is touched upon in the film. Extraordinary scenes filmed on location in Pyongyang (particularly in the city at night-time, something hardly anyone outside the state ever sees) give us a glimpse at North Korea that is revelatory, and the touching friendship between the two dancers provides the viewer with lots of dramatic meat to chew on.