The Propaganda Game (2015)

Director: Álvaro Longoria

On the day after Christmas in 2009, a friend who was visiting me at the time and I visited what is declared, whether true or not, the most dangerous and unstable place in the world: the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. This location is found on the border between North and South Korea and as American citizens, the only way to visit it is by booking the visit in advance and through the US military base in Seoul. On the day of the scheduled trip one must show up at 6 o’clock in the morning at the military base, go through security checks, get on a military bus and make the two to three hour trip north to the border with one of the few places in the world which are shrouded in mystery. Once arrived, the military escort, which is with you the entire time, goes through a list of rules: no smiling, no laughing, no pointing, no taking pictures, no hands in pockets. You are told that you cannot make any sudden move that could be interpreted as offensive or aggressive. The North Korean guards keep a watchful and intimidating eye on you at all times. Your picture is taken constantly, and we were told that it would most likely be used for propaganda purposes and manipulated in some way. And speaking of propaganda, it’s definitely something that you are aware of, from both sides. I found the experience fascinating, and was struck by how much both sides use images, language, and ideological manipulations to protect their point of view.

I was a bit worried during my viewing of Álvaro Longoria’s documentary The Propaganda Game, which offers an unprecedented look into Pyongyang, that he was showcasing, criticizing, and even attacking North Korean propaganda and the country’s leaders’ mentality and brutality, and yet he seemed to be oblivious to some shades of grey in his own film. My fears were squashed about two thirds of the way through the movie, though, as he readily admitted that propaganda is not only present on one side of the argument, and that pretty much everyone is guilty and manipulated in some way. This confession and realization truly strengthens this very good documentary, and forces the viewer to question how we are constantly influenced by images, media, and discourse in order to fall in line with a specific way to look at the world.

The film, which can be found streaming on Netflix, showcases Longoria and his crew, Spaniards all of them, as they are shown around Pyongyang, the stark capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Throughout their entire stay, the crew is always accompanied by an escort and are absolutely never left alone; the escort not only cares and leads the crew, but they also serve as interpreter, interpreter to the words spoken by anyone who is interviewed but also interpreter to what is seen, shown, and experiences. I was really hit by the constant presence, because it was so similar to my own experience at the DMZ, which was completely colored by the serviceman who stayed with us the entire day (on the bus as well), and who provided all information, commentary, and subtly was encouraging us to think of what we saw and experienced from a very specific point of view.

One character who eventually becomes a main focus of the documentary is Alejandro Cao de Bénos, who is a cliche of a human being. A Spanish citizen, defector, and North Korean sympathizer, Alejandro serves the DPRK as a symbol of a westerner who has embraced the nation’s values. What Alejandro embodies is the classic image of someone who was insignificant and useless but somehow managed to achieve the status and grandeur he always felt entitled to, but would never have reached had he stayed behind in Spain his whole life. He is still insignificant and his naivety is nearly unbelievable – it’s shocking how far desperation and self-aggrandisement can take you – but he seems to enjoy himself and the role he must play. The film works because of his presence because he is a walking and talking propaganda machine, a willing if oblivious one.

I lived and worked in South Korea for over a year and fell in love with the people and the culture, so I was particularly curious about this documentary about the country that was only a few miles away from where I lived and yet inscrutable and mysterious. The film, if seen as a documentary about a performance/show, is enlightening. I strongly recommend it to everyone, but it’s essential to keep an eye on the images and most importantly to always strive to think for oneself and try to drown out the incessant propaganda being directed from all sides.

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