So many documentaries about North Korea focus on Kim Jong-un’s regime. Interviews with the citizens emphasize the horror they live under, but not who they are as people. In Álvaro Longoria’s excellent “The Propaganda Game,” however, those people are the focus. It’s a refreshingly humanist approach, one the opts for honesty over exploitation, and the movie is all the more affecting for it.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is notoriously hard to get into. After years of trying, Longoria became one of the few documentarians granted access to the country. The interviews he gets inside paint a damning portrait of life under the communist dictatorship. One particular interview with a man waiting for the subway is terrifying and poignant all at once.
Longoria doesn’t start there, however. First, he builds the image of North Korea from the ground up, emphasizing the suffering it has endured to get to where it is. This context gives the documentary a real sense of scale. So, when Longoria points his lens to the common people, they’re just that: people. Not agents of the state or helpless victims.
At heart, Longoria is a craftsman. From the first shot, the eerily empty cityscape of Pyongyang becomes a character in itself. He follows emptiness as a theme throughout, filming many interviews in front of those empty vistas. That negative space, by the end, feels crushing. Basic questions about North Korea arise as a result: How can they afford all these new buildings and complexes? Who will live in or frequent them when they’re done? More importantly, where are all the people?
Since so few of them are accessible to begin with, the ones Longoria follows are fascinating. The man who facilitates his visit is Alejandro Cao de Benos, the only foreign employee of the DPRK government. Recently, Benos was arrested for arms trafficking in Spain. By the end, he’s an illusive man with equally illusive motives, but even he’s afforded sympathy. A brief interview with his parents give him character a healthy dose of mystery.
By interweaving how government propaganda affects the populace, every subject carries that same sense of individuality. Longoria doesn’t stop there. He even looks at how the United States, China, Japan and South Korea’s propaganda has added fuel to the fire.
The result is a balanced look at how societal systems and the conflict the provoke leave behind the citizens. Therein lies the true horror. Whether you are loyal or not, to live under such conditions is to suffer. If anything, Longoria leaves viewers with one message: suffering ignored is suffering endorsed.