Documentary Film and North Korea

Foreign documentaries on North Korea suffer from a number of unique challenges, including issues of access, verifiability, and potemkinism. They also face the challenge of how to fairly represent “the other” to an audience that has no direct experience of the object of study. To what extent can the filmmaker allow audiences to make up their own minds, when so much mediation necessarily takes place? How can he ensure some balance between competing voices? How can the film be fair to its subject? These are challenges that face any documentary, but are present to a greater degree when the subject is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a radically different society with a singular media image that has been built up over the past six decades. Four of the most widely-viewed documentaries on North Korea illustrate the many failings and occasional successes in addressing (or avoiding) these issues: Welcome to North Korea, The Vice Guide to North Korea, A State of Mind, and North Korea: A Day in the Life.

North Korea in International Media

North Korea’s relationship with the outside world is a holdover of the Cold War, during which anti-communism was such a potent force in American political and social life, it approached what Herman and Chomsky called a “national religion.”[1] There is a general pathology during a state of war, under which the enemy is portrayed as unfailingly corrupt as a group and cannot be seen as individuals. This is particularly easy to affirm when the enemy is a communist state—the last vestige of an old enemy—whose stated values differ so greatly from those found in the West.

This is compounded by what Edward Said termed “Orientalism” in his pathbreaking 1979 book of the same title. Under this paradigm, discourses on the “East” serve to create a fixed entity, a static object to be studied and conceived of for the benefit of the receiver of that knowledge.[2] Knowledge is part of a hegemony that reaffirms Eastern backwardness and distortedness in relation to Western superiority.[3] North Korea’s slavishness, authoritarianism, and misery are constantly projected and reconstituted for Western audiences, allowing us to cast ourselves as individual, free, and contented.

Moreover, as North Korea generally attempts to resist and reject the hegemonic flows of information in an increasingly globalized world, the implicit agreement in media coverage of North Korea seems to be: “If you won’t let us operate as we’re used to, we can print whatever we like, without compunction.” As Hazel Smith puts it, media that cover North Korea often operate as if the normal rules of journalistic convention (such as checking sources) do not apply.[4]

Power and Objectivity in Documentary

Documentary, according to the pathbreaking work of Bill Nichols, is one of our “discourses of sobriety,”[5] which also include science, economics, foreign policy, education, religion, and welfare. These tend to presuppose an internal logic under which claims of truth can be judged and in which their relation to the real is non-problematic.[6]

Documentary practitioners regard their craft as a process of reconstituting truth on the screen.[7] It is essentially descriptive, seeking to deliver a true story to the audience, within accepted boundaries. These boundaries can be problematic as the filmmaking process heavily filters, alters, and informs reality.

“The free choice allowed the viewer is only partly that,” writes Nichols. “Rhetoric remains at work, even in the domain of the most intensely scientific discourse. Propaganda is not as far away as one might think; ideology is always in the air, and the free subject is in itself a concept of debatable soundness.”[8] There are no objective positions from which to select or describe what one encounters.

Documentaries, while unable to expose absolute truth, serve several functions for an audience. One is to satisfy an “epistephelia,” or pleasure in knowing.[9] The role of documentary in satisfying this is particularly strong for subjects in which audiences have only a marginal or casual interest. Someone might have, for example, an interest in Korea issues to the degree that they watch the news and read op-eds. The constraints of life, however, may prevent a deeper engagement: devoting an hour or 90 minutes to a documentary may be a person’s deepest, longest engagement with the topic. If a documentary is the deepest engagement on a particular issue, its power in crafting the parameters of debate becomes inordinately large. North Korea as a media object is subject to a narrow band of images and shallowly-explored themes.

It is, of course, always difficult to deal sensitively with other cultures in film. Indeed, documentary ‘others’ different groups as quickly and completely as any medium ever. “As soon as you point the camera at someone or some object, they become ‘other,’” remarks documentary filmmaker Adam Kossoff.[10] This allows audiences to look down on the object of study in a sort contract between filmmaker and audience. The contract says: we aren’t like them. We are invited to view their tragedies and struggles, affirming our own way of life in the process.

The Documentaries

To illustrate these issues, we have chosen to look at four documentaries—Welcome to North Korea, The Vice Guide to North Korea, A State of Mind, and North Korea: A Day in the Life—all with some degree of prominence and all made between 2000 and 2010, the first period in which North Korea has allowed foreign film crews any type of sanctioned filming rights.

Welcome to North Korea (2001)

The opening of North Korea to Western tourists in the 2000s, along with “prosumer” camcorder techonolgy, allowed the creation of this “mostly covertly shot” travelogue/expository 2001 documentary.[11] Though others have followed suit, this approach was sufficiently original at the time to garner the International Emmy for Best Documentary.[12] It is founded on Orientalist assumptions and demonstrates an exceptional shallowness in research to create a racist, patronizing film.

It begins with a flowery speech by a Korean orator telling a tale of cranes taking Kim Il Sung from earth to heaven and then back again. While certainly outside contemporary Occidental traditions to eulogize a leader in such a way, this speech is clearly a form of poetry meant to lionize a legendary leader. Tetteroo, however, informs the viewer that “most Koreans” believe he isn’t really dead, just sleeping alone in his mausoleum (1 min). Immediately, this presents Koreans as stupid and irrational, to contrast with the flat, measured tone of the narrator. The people may be primitive, but the rational filmmaker and viewer are not. The conceit of ‘their ignorance’ in contrast with ‘our knowing’ runs throughout the film. For example, when from a distance the cameraman captures hundreds of children practicing the formation of “Korean characters” for the mass games, the narrator curiously claims they “probably don’t know themselves the word they are making.”

It is not only the dictatorial nature of the DPRK, but it’s ‘Asianness’ that drives such assumptions. Within two minutes, the narrator deploys the classic trope of Asians as hordes or robots, by describing commuters as “automaton-like” (1 min). South Koreans “worship the father figure as part of their Confucian tradition as well” and as such, have a reverence for authority figures: CEOs of multinationals also enjoy “unassailable status” (45 mins). All of these images serve to emphasize our own nature as individual actors, while stripping that possibility from Koreans.

The film also contains various errors such as describing the Seoul-Beijing-Pyongyang trip as 6000 miles (it’s only about 1100 miles) or that “Kim Il Sung also created a juche calendar, starting with his own birthday in 1911” (8 mins). The juche calendar didn’t make its debut until July 1997, three years after Kim Il Sung’s death.[13] If it were not North Korea as the subject—if it were almost anything else—such sloppy, racist filmmaking would garner criticism, if not scorn. Instead, this film has over a million views online and one finds frequent posts in discussion forums praising its insightful nature.

The Vice Guide to North Korea (2008)

The Vice Guide is in some way the inheritor of Welcome to North Korea, in that it is a “journalists-as-tourists” style film. It is hosted on various video sites around the internet, but primarily in three parts at VBS.tv, the multimedia arm of Vice.[14] Vice’s aesthetic, both in the magazine and in other media, might be characterized as “irreverent” and bears some resemblance to the social role MTV played in its early years as arbiter of coolness. 

After strongly implying he bribed his way into the country, co-founder and auteur Shane Smith begins his unwavering assault on the weirdness of North Korea. Of course, Koreans see Kim Il Sung as “a benevolent god” and “they think the world thinks Kim Il Sung is the best…they don’t understand that the world hates them” (part 2, 13 mins).

The dominant trope of North Koreans’ ignorance is compounded by their irredeemable melancholy. Pyongyang’s school for gifted children is depressing and “so scary because they’ve been picked out: they’ve been press-ganged into service for the state,” says Smith (part 3, 7 mins). At a tourist tea shop, the lone staff member’s hospitality is because of loneliness: “You realize she hasn’t seen anyone in ten months and it’s going to be another ten months before anyone comes” (18-19 mins). Even when North Koreans are having fun, it is because really they’re so sad. Later, during a drinking session he describes his guides, guards, and hosts as “shaking” with joy because they get to eat, drink, and smoke when they have foreign tourists around.

A Koryo dynasty style meal with a wide variety of side dishes becomes “50 plates of little shit, you can’t eat any of it,” just served to say, “‘look how much food we have’” (part 2, 4 mins).

Smith, to end his tour, participates in karaoke, where he gives a howling, drunken rendition of a Sex Pistols song. His hosts struggle to understand the performance’s value, leaving Smith to note that “they don’t know what punk rock is. Not only do they not have rock and roll, they didn’t have jazz; they didn’t have fuckin’ blues! They didn’t have any of this shit. There are no cultural similarities whatsoever.” This concrete conclusion is reached, however, by someone who makes no attempt to find commonality with anything, while constantly emphasizing the spectacle of “the other.”

The Vice Guide, sadly, is perhaps the most watched documentary on North Korea among young people. In 2010, Shane Smith claimed roughly 45 million views of the video.[15] Smith, however, has a penchant for exaggeration and hyperbole, so this number may be inflated.[16] However, the site as a whole by 2010 was receiving over 4 million unique views a month.[17]

A State of Mind (2004) (Click here for an exclusive 38 North interview with director Daniel Gordon)

A State of Mind is the second of British director Daniel Gordon’s trilogy of documentaries on North Korea. Made by his VeryMuchSo Productions, in cooperation with (and thus with the distribution power of) the BBC, this documentary is an observational film that follows two young gymnasts—Pak Hyon Son and Kim Song Yon—as they prepare for the 2003 Mass Games in Pyongyang. Mass Games, as the narrator describes it, are a “Socialist-realism extravaganza and a perfect example of the state’s ideology: the subordination of the individual’s desires to the needs of the collective” (1 min).

This film, in contrast to the others, had wide access over a long period of time and “was granted unparalleled cooperation from the authorities. There were guides and interpreters present at all times, but they neither interfered nor sought to censor the material” (2 mins). This simple dismissal is the only reference to issues of representing reality that the film faces. Ultimately it belies the impossibility of neutrality.

After all, our vocabulary itself is not neutral. Gordon chooses to use the word “guide,” while Welcome to North Korea and the Vice Guide to North Korea choose to call them “guards” or “minders.” “Guide” carries connotations of helpfulness and aid; “guard” or “minder” implies incarceration or subjugation. Gordon also avoids the pejorative word “regime” in the narration, opting for “government” or “state,” words that imply legitimacy.

The major departure from a dominant theme, however, is in the exploration of the individual lives of two young athletes looking to succeed in a highly communitarian society. Everywhere in the film are humanizing, personalizing elements. The girls playing hide and seek, for example, or interviews in which there is laughter and cheekiness. Mothers dote over their kids; students study and pursue their hobbies; men go to work and come home; families eat and watch TV together. The narrative deals with the geopolitical issues that shape the society that produces the Mass Games, but they are not the film’s key factor.

Gordon fails to discuss the impact of a camera on small things such as professions of loyalty to the state in interviews or the potential that the families received more food during filming: the fridges and dinner tables appear quite abundant. Nor is there acknowledgement of the camera’s impact on major scenes, such as the visit to a collective farm on Kim Il Sung’s birthday or the girl’s vacation to Mount Baekdu, both of which almost certainly wouldn’t have been organized if it weren’t for the film’s production. Nonetheless, for avoiding the common racial stereotypes and militarized frameworks, A State of Mind must be commended: it offers unparalleled insight into the daily lives and motivations of individuals in North Korea.

North Korea: A Day in the Life (2004)

This film was directed by Pieter Fluery, an accomplished Dutch filmmaker. The main subject of the film, Hong Sun Hui, is a worker in a Pyongyang textile factory. The film follows her daily routine, but also includes aspects of her husband’s, daughter’s, and father-in-law’s days. Her father-in-law is an aging military veteran, her husband takes English classes, and her young daughter attends kindergarten.

It is almost entirely shot in the cinéma vérité or “fly on the wall” style, which seeks to minimize overt guidance of the audience by eliminating narration—“capturing people in action, and letting the viewer come to conclusions about them unaided by any implicit or explicit commentary.”[18]

This style also allows the director to perhaps deflect charges of being a propagandist. Clearly, with the family chosen by DPRK authorities, audiences may be suspicious of how representative it is of North Korean life. In effect, he can say: “this is merely what they showed me: I recorded it without comment.”

The daily life shown is fairly normal. Sun Hui goes to work; there are power outages. Her daughter is taught about Kim Jong Il’s exploits in kindergarten. Her husband studies English. There is, however, the occasional use of both distorted, pixilated imagery and also discordant, tense musical accompaniment. In effect, it becomes the director’s interpretation of the events on screen. All is not well here, the music implies. North Korean life, even for the relatively privileged of Pyongyang is an illegitimate, distorted modernity. This invites us to reflect on our good fortune to not be North Korean, to look at their lives from the outside with a mixture of disdain, sympathy, and relief.


[1] Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media,” (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), p. 29.

[2] Edward Said, “Orientalism,” (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), p. 67.

[3] Ibid, p. 7.

[4] Hazel Smith, “Bad, Mad, Sad or Rational Actor? Why the ‘Securitization’ Paradigm Makes for Poor Policy Analysis of North Korea,” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-) Vol. 76, No. 1, 2000.

[5] Bill Nichols, “Representing Reality: issues and concepts in documentary,” (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), p. 3.

[6] Bill Nichols, “Blurred Boundaries: questions of meaning in contemporary culture,” (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 67.

[7] Gail Pearce and Cahal McLaughlin, “Truth of Dare: Art and Documentary,” (Bristol: Intellect Books, 2007), p.59 (quoting Adam Kossoff speaking at a panel discussion).

[8] Nichols, “Representing Reality,” p. 109.

[9] Bill Nichols, “Representing Reality,” p. 178.

[10] Pearce and McLaughlin, “Truth of Dare,” p. 42.

[11] Tetteroo Media, accessed April 29, 2011, http://www.tetteroo.tv/nk.php.

[12] Tetteroo Media, accessed April 29, 2011, http://www.tetteroo.tv/nk.php.

[13] Andrei Lankov, “North of the DMZ,” (McFarland: Jefferson, NC, 2007), p. 10.

[14] The Vice Guide to North Korea, accessed April 30, 2011, http://www.vbs.tv/en-gb/watch/the-vice-guide-to-travel/vice-guide-to-north-korea-1-of-3.

[15] ABC News, “The Conversation: Social Media and North Korea,” accessed April 30, 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EpwcLrnrsc.

[16] Jason Tanz, “The Snarky Vice Squad is Ready to be Taken Seriously. Seriously.” Wired Magazine Issue 15, 11, accessed April 30, 201,1 http://www.wired.com/entertainment/theweb/magazine/15-11/ff_vice.

[17] “Your doc on VBS,” accessed November 1, 2010, http://www.thedocumentaryblog.com/index.php/2010/04/20/your-doc-on-vbs/.

[18] Bill Nichols, “The Voice of Documentary,” Film Quarterly Vol. 36, No. 3, 1983 p. 17.

Stay informed about our latest
news, publications, & uploads: