Festival brings (some) world cinema to North Korea
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 September 23, 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.
The vice head of KorFilm, Kim JaeHyok, said the organising committee, of which he is chair, 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 said.
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.
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.
“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 said.
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 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.
The selection of films shared common themes of cooperation and overcoming adversity, “and it goes without saying that there was really no sexual content”, said jury member Matt Hulse, a Beijing-based British filmmaker.
“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.”
Hulse said, “That produced an amount of behind-the-hand giggling from women in the audience. It was quite sweet.”
North Koreans walk past film posters at the 15th Pyongyang International Film Festival.