My spirits soared yesterday (not that they were really down anyway) while reading Malte Herwig's article in the New York Times about the success of an annual international film festival in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.
In an insular dictatorship widely considered to be one of the most repressive and brutalizing in the world, where basic human rights such as freedom of information, religion, association and political opposition are prohibited, where people are starving to death due to preventable food shortages, where daily life is akin to prison life, and where censorship is instituted in every imaginable aspect of communication - there is film. And it's changing the consciousness of a country.
Foreign film, to be specific. Granted, at this festival the projectionist would cover the lens with a piece of cardboard when "unseemly" content appeared on screen, but the fact remains that the 100+ films still "offered a rare chance for ordinary North Koreans to get a glimpse of the outside world." That should be in bold: a rare chance, because while film is big business in North Korea (movie star faces grace the national currency), all of it is locally made and distributed, and all content must meet the government's strict standards. In fact, there is a history of former dictator Kim Il-sung working the sets of North Korean films and instructing the cast and crew on the proper techniques of their trade. Imagine President Bush and Vice President Cheney telling Scorsese, Tarantino and Apatow how to properly make "American" movies.
Of course none of the festival films were from the United States, or from that different world across the border, South Korea, but they did include offerings from China, Russia, France and Italy. Turns out current Dear Leader Kim Jong-il is a bit of a movie buff himself, with a personal library of 20,000 films and a full-time staff of 250 people to manage it - and bring its most propaganda-like titles (An Azalea Behind Enemy Lines) to theaters around the country. Many of those homegrown films played at the festival as well, but they were screened in between foreign epics like Elizabeth: The Golden Age and China's Assembly, which took home the top prize.
The festival, which took place in September, was so well attended that uniformed guards had to turn away crowds, and theater doors were chained shut as the movies started (although for some reason I imagine that happens outside of the festival as well). Audience members were sternly warned over loudspeakers to collect all of their trash (a punishable offense?), and seats were strictly assigned. Cell phones going off? Not a problem - North Koreans are banned from owning them.
So what does the popularity of the Pyongyang International Film Festival mean?
Well, I think the obvious answer is that North Koreans realize film offers a unique opportunity to expand their worldview. In other words, North Koreans are unknowingly living out the raison d'être of Getafilm.
Whether they are seeing documentaries (unlikely), fictional stories about contemporary life, or depictions of historical events in other countries, Korean minds are being positively influenced despite their own government's best efforts against it.
Consider the health warning put forth by culture minister Kang Nung-su at the festival's opening ceremony: movies "must not harm the sound mind of the people". Here's the translation for those of you who don't speak totalitarian: a brainwashed culture won't want what it doesn't know exists. North Koreans are collectively trapped in a one-world view, and their government wants to safely keep them away from seeing people live happy, independent lives on screen.
Fortunately, I live in a country that not only allows for almost all types of free expression from its own citizens, but also opens its doors to arts and culture from around the world. Let me never complain about the limited NY/L.A. releases that don't make their way here. I get to see 90% of the movies I really want to see in the theater, and the rest are freely available at any time. I can only hope such an opportunity becomes available in North Korea at some point in my life.
It's not just about entertainment (that would be a violation of Rule #10 in the Getafilm Guide to Going to the Movies). It's about sitting in a theater, humbly realizing that six billion people are out there having different life experiences than you, and then celebrating the fact that you can learn new things from those people and those stories on the screen. North Koreans don't get that opportunity, but this film festival is a start. Will it change the country? Only time will tell.
About all I know for sure is this: I may not be in North Korea, but I'm always trying to get out.
(Note: Malte Herwig is a German writer, historian and journalist. Find more information on his website: http://malte-herwig.com/indexEngl.html.)