Alvaro Longoria on North Korea and Media Manipulation

Award-winning docu-feature director presents ‘The Propaganda Game’ at San Sebastian

Alvaro Longoria Talks About Documentary ‘The Propaganda Game’
Curtesy of Alvaro Longoria

Where are the hovels, mud-splattered chickens, and downtrodden peasants?

The opening of “The Propaganda Game” feels like a propaganda film as the camera sweeps over North Korean capital Pyongyang’s most splendiferous buildings, to an orchestral score, as children skateboard and smiling citizenry walk by. The sequence is in fact shot by director Alvaro Longoria himself, anticipating his film’s major point. “The Propaganda Game” marks the second directorial outing for Longoria, helmer of the Javier Bardem-produced Goya Award winning “Sons of the Clouds: The Last Colony.”

Aided by exclusive access behind the world’s last iron curtain gained via a key facilitator, Spaniard Alejandro Cao de Benos, the only foreigner working for the North Korean government, “The Propaganda Game” follows Longoria as he shoots any scene he wants – but on a controlled itinerary and always with company. Near sold out worldwide by Memento Films Intl, and a vision of North Korea shot largely in North Korea, rather than dismissing North Korea out-of-hand, or depicts it, as one interviewee puts it, as a kind of freak-show, it portrays the country as a battle-ground in a propaganda war between its ruling regime and a hostile West. Longoria, ironic but gentlemanly, points to falsehoods and its citizens’ plight, sparked by geo-political interest. Variety talked to Longoria as he geared up for the film’s world premiere at San Sebastian. “The Propaganda Game” has now gone on to screen at October’s Rome Film Festival and Argentina’s Mar del Plata.

You have directed two documentaries, one about the Western Sahara, another about North Korea… You belong to a generation of enfranchisement, filmmakers outside the U.S. now all over the world who exercise their right to describe any part of the world. Most of your films as a producer take place outside Spain…

Absolutely. My view is that the world is a global market. The audience is global. I want to make films that can travel. These documentaries we’ve done are clear examples of films that are not necessarily for a mainstream audience, but for interested audiences around the world, we are not just targeting Spanish audiences. I think a lot of the younger generation thinks like me.

You produced in “7 Days in Havana” before, you said, it would change out of all recognition. Was part of your interest in North Korea to find a country that was not spangled by McDonalds and Coca Cola ads, a pre-globalism remnant?

My interest in communist countries has always been there. A lot of my documentaries have a political angle. I think that we will continue in that line. It’s really fascinating that the world is determined by political or economic systems that a lot of people know very little about. So my interest is to try and go deeper into things that are present in our day-to-day life but are rarely analyzed in detail.

There are things about North Korea in the film that surprised me hugely, for example, your opening shot. I expected North Korea to be mud huts and puddles….

One of my goals when I went to North Korea was to try and shoot North Korea in a way that hasn’t been shown before: As beautiful as possible, with very high-quality cameras, staying away from the typical moving handheld secret look at North Korea documentary. I wanted to show the full splendor of what they were showing me, even if it was not representing the whole reality. I wanted to use “propaganda” aesthetics. Most people say they’ve never seen North Korea like that which is surprising as we just shot what we were shown and most films and press are shown the same.

I get the sense that this was true investigative journalism: That you went to North Korea with no axe to grind but with several ideas about what the film which became “The Propaganda Game” could be about: How ordinary North Koreans lived; the extraordinary Spaniard Alejandro Cao de Benos, a mouthpiece for the North Korean regime. But you ended up with another film entirely.

I realized I’m not an expert in North Korea. I was in no position to make a judgment. Especially during the time I spent in China, there was a lot of manipulation of information happening. A lot of news items coming out of North Korea were false, and information that North Korea wanted to relay the whole world did not tell the whole story either. I decided to make information manipulation the underlying plot.

The documentary is a chronicle of frustration. You went to see how North Koreans live. One thing you find out is that they live in a propaganda world.

I give the audiences the ingredients but I want them to make the final product. I don’t want to spoon-feed them the conclusions.

One doubt, as you say in the film, is where North Korea’s money comes from. You infer some of it comes from China. Another is whether the people you interviewed, who seem selected by chance, whether they were truly happy, or just truly conscious that they had to say they were happy.

I think that if you live in North Korea you know the rules of the game. It would have been daring or not intelligent for an interviewee there to openly criticize the Government, I was interviewing people we stopped in the street. That country does not take internal criticism well. In fact, I never saw any. But that does not mean there aren’t many people in North Korea who’d like to change things. One surprise was that the country was not as dark, grey, and terrible as is portrayed from the outside. It’s not only military parades. Another surprise was the effect of the propaganda. You’re surrounded by people telling you how lovely everything is, and you have to agree with them at some point. First I was more confrontational but then I went along in order to get a bit more freedom. And also the basic thing is : Things aren’t black and white. North Korea, as any other issue in the world, is gray. Unless you go deeper you’ll never understand what’s going on. At the end of the film there’s a lot of things I still don’t know the answer for.

But you do arrive at some conclusions. One is North Korea’s three-way propaganda. Could talk about that?

It’s interesting the different approach they take to propaganda. The North Koreans in government openly accept and agree that they’re using propaganda directed at their people and also at the outside world. That’s part of their weaponry. They use it and they tell you in the film many times. They say propaganda is useful and good. On the outside, a lot of information that comes out of North Korea is manipulated. It’s harder, however, for people to admit there’s propaganda at play. Sometimes I got a hostile response to the idea that there’s propaganda at play there, even though most news about North Korea are somewhat manipulated, if not entirely false.