Festival brings (some) world cinema to Pyongyang

September 24, 2016 11:37 am
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Some 60 films from 20 countries were shown at this year’s Pyongyang International Film Festival © AFP / Ed Jones

, Pyongyang, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Sep 24 – Sex and graphic violence were largely a no-no, although a glimpse of naked Russian buttocks made the cut, while a Bollywood offering was well received and Hollywood was locked out completely.

The Pyongyang International Film Festival, which opened a week after North Korea triggered global outrage with its fifth nuclear test and wrapped up on Friday, is a world away from Berlin, Sundance and other established names on the festival circuit.

While big-name jury members pose in front of media scrums on the Croisette in Cannes, in Pyongyang they ran three-legged races and rolled on the grass popping balloons with their bodies on a sports outing organised between screenings.

“Every day, there’s been something I wasn’t expecting,” said Al Cossar, a jury member from New Zealand.

PIFF was launched in 1987 and has been held every two years since 1990.

It began life as the Pyongyang Film Festival of Non-Aligned and Other Developing Countries, but selection has been gradually broadened since 2000 to include entries from Britain, France and elsewhere.

The actual selection process is opaque — none of the attending foreign delegates were able to shed much light on how it worked — and is in the hands of the Korea Film Export and Import Corp. (KorFilm) which controls theatrical distribution in North Korea.

“I was curious to see how a North Korean audience would react to something outside of their cultural context,” French film director Francois Margolin said © AFP / Ed Jones

The vice head of KorFilm, Kim Jae-Hyok, said the organising committee, of which he is chairman, looked for films that “reflected the mission of the festival which is self-reliance, peace and friendship”.

“We do not select films that criticise another country,” he told AFP.

– Hollywood ban –

While ostensibly open to entries from anywhere, there are clear exceptions. US and South Korean movies have never been shown — a ban that Kim made clear was not about to be lifted anytime soon in the current diplomatic climate.

“Hostile countries including South Korea and the United States are imposing sanctions on us and not looking for cultural exchange,” he said.

“This year, there have been attempts to derail the hopes and aspirations of many filmmakers around the world who are trying to take part in our festival, by sanctions and other means,” he added, without elaborating.

“Cultural exchange” is something of a buzzword at PIFF, given that it cannot begin to match the likes of Cannes or Berlin in terms of offering selected films global exposure or distribution deals.

Many of those who bring movies to Pyongyang seem mainly to be driven by curiosity to attend what must be the world’s most unlikely film festival.

“I could have gone to Toronto, but I would have just seen the same old faces, so I chose to come here,” said French director Francois Margolin, whose feature on Jewish art looted by the Nazis (“The Art Dealer”) was shown out of competition.

US and South Korean movies have never been shown at the Pyongyang International Film Festival © AFP / Ed Jones

“I was curious to see how a North Korean audience would react to something outside of their cultural context,” Margolin said.

“North Korea isn’t Mars. There’s a growing interest among people here about the outside world that is being fed by technology,” he added.

– Home screenings –

Outside of the festival, western films are very rarely screened in North Korean cinemas and foreign movies shown on television are largely restricted to often decades-old Soviet or Chinese fare.

But in recent years, residents of cities like Pyongyang have enjoyed increasing access to the latest Hollywood blockbusters thanks to a thriving black market in smuggled DVDs and films on USB sticks that can be played secretly at home on portable media players.

Unlike other festivals, the five-member PIFF jury does not attend public showings of the films in competition, watching them instead at private screenings.

“When we asked why, they said the audience reaction might influence our judgement,” said jury member Matt Hulse, a Beijing-based British filmmaker.

Western films are very rarely screened in North Korean cinemas and foreign movies shown on television are largely restricted to often decades-old Soviet or Chinese fare © AFP / Ed Jones

Apart from the festival curtain raiser, “Frontier Post ‘Serene'” the only other public screening they attended was the out-of-competition Bollywood film “BahuBali”, whose song and dance numbers drew a very favourable audience response.

Some 60 films from 20 countries were shown at this year’s PIFF, with 12 features in the main competition, including entries from Britain, Poland, Russia and North Korea.

The total number was down from previous years — a decline delegates attributed to the country’s growing diplomatic isolation after international sanctions were tightened in the wake of nuclear tests on January 6 and September 9.

The top prize, the “Torch Award” went to the North Korean feature “The Story of our Home” about a young woman who devotes herself to caring for orphans.

– No sex please? –

The selection shared common themes of cooperation and overcoming adversity, “and it goes without saying that there was really no sexual content”, said Hulse.

“Frontier Post ‘Serene'” about a group of Russian soldiers on the Afghan-Tajik border offered a brief flash of nudity with some military backsides on display in a bathing scene.

“That produced an amount of behind-the-hand giggling from women in the audience. It was quite sweet,” said Hulse.

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