PYONGYANG - The austere, angular façade of the Taedongmun movie theater, surmounted by large statues depicting a worker, a soldier and a peasant, gives off an air of power and authority.
The date of construction, 1955, is carved into the building, which stands close to Kim Il-sung Square, near the center of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. A hostess greets us in traditional garb - a long pink jogori coat covered with flowers embroidered in gold. She takes us through the renovated lobby, lit by a crystal chandelier. In the theater, the chairs are red velvet. The lights go off, the movie starts.
Today’s movie is "Wish," by North Korean director Jang In-hak. It is the story of a married couple - the husband is a construction worker whose dream is to have his picture taken with the leader of his country. With its interior scenes and constantly smiling workers, we get a glimpse of daily life in North Korea. To a foreigner’s eyes, it is idealized and a bit outdated, with its radio-cassette players and vintage telephones.
"Wish," filmed in 2011, was the only North Korean movie presented at the 13th Pyongyang International Film Festival (PIFF). The biennial event brings a touch of color to the up-and-coming image of North Korea that authorities want to show off to visitors.
Foreign festivalgoers were also treated to visits to the house where the founder of the nation, Kim Il-sung (1912-1994) was born; and to “new” attractions which have sprung up since Kim Jong-un’s ascent to power in 2011, such as the Luna People's Amusement Park.
In between these two rulers, Kim Jong-il (1941-2011) presided over a veritable golden age of North Korean cinema. In the 1960s and 1970s, 60 or so films were produced every year by the Korean Film Studio, built outside Pyongyang in a spacious region of green, rolling hills. Since the mid-1990s, the economic crisis has decreased the number of movies, and now only two or three are made each year.
The North Korean movie industry began during the Japanese colonization of Korea (1910-1945). The independence movement "used traveling cinemas and theaters to mobilize people in the countryside," explains Patrick Maurus, a professor at the French National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO).
“North Korea’s movie industry developed in step with the other Communist countries – China and especially the Soviet Union,” says Antoine Coppola, a cinema professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, South Korea. “They were using film as a tool to promote ideology and national identity."
Enlightening the masses
"Movies develop culture and serve to enlighten the popular masses," says Ri Yang-il, vice-president of the Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts. As in other cultural domains, North Korean film is marked by the omnipresence of the nation's leaders. Kim Il-sung himself is said to have directed the first productions. His son Kim Jong-il was a noted cinephile, who "modified the approach to film-making by introducing elements of daily life," says Maurus. Kim Jong-il's essay, “On the art of the Cinema,” is still the ideological standard for North Korean cinema.
"Cinema depicts life and people's feelings, like it does in real life," explains "Desire" director Jang In-hak in between cigarettes. He came to the movie business during his military service. "It was then that I discovered what a director does, how he creates life." He says that one can learn “everything about cinema in General Kim Jong-il’s book."
In the interests of propaganda, Kim Jong-il allowed the development of a sort of star system. One such star is the actress Mun Jong-hae, known for her role in a multi-part movie series "The Nation and Destiny." Mun, a former schoolteacher from the country, is a bit shy. She too emphasizes the Leader's role in her career. "He noticed me and allowed me to be admitted to the 'Great Cinema Academy.' Sometimes in the street people call me 'President of the People's Committee.' That is my role in the series."
As a showplace for North Korean cinema, the film festival represents "the principles of independence, peace and friendship," says the Minister of Culture, Hong Gwang-sun. This year, the festival seems "more open, and things seem to be happening in this town," says Uwe Schmelter, the German president of the festival's jury. He has participated since 2000, and is one of the reasons for the PIFF's opening to western films, when at first it was limited to movies from formerly communist and non-aligned countries.
This year, "Comrade Kim Goes Flying," jointly produced by North Korea, Belgium and the UK, won best direction. The movie was set and filmed in Pyongyang.
"The festival gives the North Korean officials an international audience that tends to be quite indulgent, since they are guests," says one festivalgoer. At the festival, foreigners come in contact with an enthusiastic local public, but according to Coppola, these North Korean cinema buffs are carefully chosen. Attending the festival is a "privilege given for service to the nation."