Around the middle of 2012, a fascinating documentary film made headlines: it was called Propaganda and it was alleged to be a product of the North Korean government, discussing Western consumer culture and the way it makes us all into zombies who are easily coerced into supporting war and violence. I know what you’re thinking: this page is not thick enough to support all of this heavy irony. I thought so too at first, especially since the film begins with a few screens of captions about Dear Leader and his magical abilities and his unicorns and so on.
Granted, besides this there are a few other conspiracy bits were also a bit too paranoid for my taste (especially about WWII and Zionism being a complete hoax). But all in all it turned out to be dead-on. Consumerism, the cult of the celebrity, the use of terror to justify invasions and unnecessary wars which are more often than not driven by greed. It was nothing new and yet it was as fresh as can be because it was put to words by a seeming outsider; an outsider insightful enough to realise how illusory the Western perception of freedom is. It was riveting to try to see the world as I know it through North Korean eyes. For a minute there I was almost convinced. And though that conviction didn’t last very long – it’s very hard to mistake North Korea for a humane, free country – there’s really no going back from seeing the other side like that.
One of the interesting questions that Propaganda raised, as evident from various blogs and online discussions about it, is that of authenticity. Was this film really made in North Korea? Was it intended for its local market, to further convince the citizens of how evil America and its co-conspirators are? Was it perhaps deliberately “leaked” and was actually meant for Westerners – and if so, why bother? Some speculators wondered whether the film might in fact have originated in the US, as how it constantly cites thinkers such as Noam Chomsky (and, as stated earlier, the ideas presented in the film are not necessarily unheard of).
And, indeed, in December it was finally revealed that the creator of the film was not from Pyongyang but Christchurch, New Zealand. “The whole thing is a social experiment about propaganda,” said director Slavko Martinov to Media3, an NZ media commentary program, and its “entire purpose was to fight propaganda using propaganda.” According to Martinov, the reason behind its success is that humans love mysteries. No other distributer would work with such a subversive film, and the creators relied on social media interest to keep it alive. Martinov reasons that this was the only way to make people listen. “Anthropologically speaking, you never can objectively view your own culture. We are our own culture, we cannot see outside of it,” he explains. Propaganda’s methods proved to be very effective: the full version of the film on Youtube has nearly half a million views.
Why expose the truth behind the film, then? The illusion of authenticity is obviously necessary for the message to be effective. It turns out to have been a required move, in an attempt to clear the name of the South Korean actor who played the psychologist being interviewed in the documentary. His own South Korean community in Christchurch has shunned him and accused him of being a spy, refusing to believe the truth behind the film. As it turns out, the story behind the making of this documentary might be worthy of a documentary itself. Or, if not a documentary, at least a lively discussion: how is the viewing changed by knowing the film’s origin? I confess I was a bit disappointed to learn of its inauthenticity. It felt a bit like reading an amazing, surreal story only to find it ends with “and then she woke up and it was all a dream”.
Then again, there’s something to be said for the Inception-like circularity it created. In effect it is a film that urges its viewers to question everything media feeds them, to ask questions, to not fall for cheap tricks. It does so through a cheap trick (albeit a very original one) in a propaganda-like pretence.
It might be disappointing but it might just make the message even stronger. Or maybe the real message of Martinov’s production story is how distracting drama is. Isn’t the message of the film strong enough without needing a back story – be it that of a New Zealand director or that of an escaped North Korean and a mystery DVD?
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons