At the moment of this writing, the world is looking toward the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea with even more bewildered curiosity than usual. Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, he of unmatched manly virtues as many a state decree has attested, hasn’t been glimpsed in public for an unusual spell. It was announced he was afflicted with “an uncomfortable physical condition,” an official statement vague even by local standards. Is he alive? Has there been a coup d’etat? Is it possible that whatever is going on might portend a thawing of relations at last between this most secretive, repressive of modern nations and the rest of the globe?
Though you may well have an answer by the time you read this, at the moment to all these questions is “Who knows?” Which is quite remarkable, really, given the age of instant information sharing and high-security leakage we live in. One might think it impossible to build a literal and/or figurative wall ’round a sizable country, one so high that a population of twenty-five million might be almost wholly ignorant of what lies outside, or the real circumstances of their own isolation. Yet Internet be darned, it is so. (As you might guess if you didn’t already know, Internet access beyond a handful of government-sanctioned sites is extremely restricted in North Korea, and “consumption of unapproved media” is a capital offense.) Rare reports from outside visitors are almost invariably compromised by the tightly stage-managed nature of their visits. For now, for the most part, we can only guess at the mindset of North Koreans from the propaganda directed at them that surfaces on our soulless-capitalist radar.
Needless to say, a nation so completely cut off from others needs to be given good reasons for that, ones that suggest the outside world is a pestilence of corruption and exploitation North Koreans are well rid of. (No matter what drastic privations they have frequently suffered as a result of various trade and diplomatic embargoes.) The general Western perception is of an abused, indoctrinated citizenry ruled with an iron hand by a government whose oft-hysterical pronouncements and figureheads we widely mock. But what do they think about us?
To make that imaginative leap from the comfort of your home, you could hardly do better than watch Propaganda, a feature-length indictment of Western hypocrisies and immorality designed to make North Korean viewers feel quite relieved they aren’t a part of them. Or so it appears. (NOTE: Major spoilers ahead. If you would prefer to experience Propaganda at face value first, read the rest of this article after you’ve seen it.)
These ninety-six minutes of documentary essay inform us upfront that “This is a film about psychological warfare…a specific type of warfare designed to distract, misinform and anesthetize the brain.” What follows is a point-by-point harangue against ways in which the West (mostly the U.S. and U.K.) use elaborate systems of disinformation and distraction to “control populations on behalf of their owners,” creating nations of “consumer slaves” blind to the injustices around them.
This all-encompassing campaign has many facets. The media’s fixation on fashion, celebrity and entertainment trivia (personified in empty icons like Paris Hilton) promote acquisitive, market-based “values” while tamping down any genuine critical thinking. “Favorable yet deliberately vague slogans” from “I’m Lovin’ It” to “Support Our Troops” provide an illusion of meaning without actually saying anything. “False wars” like the ones on terror and drugs, not to mention First World invasions of less-powerful nations (plus support of foreign tyrannies) feed the military-industrial complex and maintain “fear [as] the engine room of imperial propaganda.” Organized religion offers salve to the conscience, as even a (Catholic) mass murderer can “sit in a box and confess their sins to a priest” for full forgiveness.
However accurate or simplistic you deem its overall conclusions, Propaganda’s savvy editorial juxtapositions of material from advertising, pop culture, news media and archival footage score some powerful, damning points. The film makes passing note of such recent historical failures of leadership as the Catholic Church’s overly chummy relationship with the Nazi Party, and the Bush administration’s pitiful response to Hurricane Katrina devastation. Gruesome images of war crimes around the globe are contrasted with the culture of “death, violence and destruction” celebrated in the profitable gory escapism of video games and Quentin Tarantino movies. While Tyra Banks sells the vacuous rewards of surface beauty and fame on America’s Top Model, most Americans turn a willful blind eye to millions living in poverty on our shores, let alone to the consequences of military “intervention” in Iraq or elsewhere.
Its rhetoric spouted verbally by an onscreen North Korean academic (and translated on the soundtrack by a posh British female), Propaganda doesn’t shy from pushing buttons even many U.S. progressives might recoil from, as when it bluntly accuses Israel of using the Holocaust as cover for all its own human-rights crimes, or when the narrator sneers in passing at “our limp-wristed brothers and sisters in the South.” (South Korea, of course.)
These more envelope-pushing provocations arrive late, and for a reason, as they teasingly call into question Propaganda’s own central illusion. For (here comes the spoiler, folks) filmmaker Slavko Martinov is no North Korean but a Kiwi, and his film isn’t actual North Korean agitprop but an ingenious New Zealand approximation of such. It’s a chunk of ersatz nationalist doctrine so convincingly done that one doubts the actual so-called “hermit empire” would raise any cry of misrepresentation. (Of course, that government doubtless realizes that calling attention to Propaganda might prove more embarrassing than not, while raising the profile of a movie otherwise fated to strictly underground popularity. On the other hand, the Democratic People’s Republic is very happy to cry foul at Seth Rogen and James Franco’s imminent “Let’s kill Kim Jong-un!” farce The Interview, sight unseen.)
Propaganda isn’t even the first such impersonation, as Jim Finn’s The Juche Idea a few years back already played at feature length with the language of official state North Korean proselytism, both reproducing it concisely and mocking it lightly. But Martinov’s “propaganda” is a very complex joke, and not entirely a joke at that. The criticisms it offers of Western policy and values can be (and are, every day) debated. Yet they are no less troubling for being presented in this ultimately ironical, deliberately deceptive package. Of course, viewers who accept the fictive backstory Propaganda originally came with (when it was uploaded online in parts as contraband supposedly sneaked out of the Republic by defectors) can dismiss its overt messages as blatant hypocrisy, coming from a nation that so severely limits its citizens’ freedoms via isolation, censorship, prison camps and more. But once that pretense is removed, are the film’s accusations still so easily shrugged off? Like the best pranks, Propaganda leaves you a little less confident of the reality around you than you were before.