British filmmaker Colin Offland has made perhaps the most hilarious documentary about North Korea in existence — Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang. From December 2013 to January 2014, Offland followed flamboyant basketball personality Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang, where Rodman and a group of former NBA players staged a historic basketball match against the North Korean national team to commemorate Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s birthday.
Offland’s documentary offers the exclusive, inside story of this now infamous attempt at “basketball diplomacy”. Big Bang in Pyongyang gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how Rodman and his fellow players reacted to the media-stirred controversy that surrounded their trip. Among other goodies, we get to see the other side of Rodman’s outburst about detained pastor Kenneth Bae on CNN, as well as his Marilyn Monroe-esque “Happy Birthday” serenade to Kim Jong-un.
Coupled with deadpan narration and psychedelic background music imported fresh from Pyongyang, this unique perspective on one of the most bizarre acts of private diplomacy in modern history makes for a highly amusing watch.
Cinema Escapist had the chance to speak with Colin Offland about his experiences directing this documentary. Read our conversation below!
How did you stumble upon the opportunity to make Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang?
I visited North Korea on holiday in 2011, after which I followed the news more carefully. A couple of years later, when I read that Dennis Rodman was putting on the first-ever match between a DPRK team and a US team and that it would be sponsored by an Irish Bookmaker…I thought I had to make a film about it.
As a filmmaker, what in particular interested you about North Korea?
Anywhere off the main tourist routes fascinate me because of the sense of discovery — which exists despite the control you are under in North Korea. From a film-making point of view it wasn’t North Korea that was interesting on this occasion, it was Dennis and his incredible friendship with Kim Jong-un that made this story unique.
To what degree did having already been to North Korea before as a tourist help or affect you while making the film?
The first time you go to North Korea it can be a bit overwhelming and it can take a bit of digesting once you get back. I think the advantage I had was that I knew what to expect, I knew and understood the culture and the rules, I knew how long things can take to happen and I knew that the best laid plans might never happen.
For a filmmaker this can be very frustrating, and this frustration can potentially cause breakdowns in relationships. I knew what to expect and rode out those problems, which ultimately helped me build up trust, which in turn helped people open up to me and eventually people got more supportive.
While in the DPRK, how much freedom did you have to shoot — and to what extent were things a “real-life Truman Show”?
We had little freedom to roam around Pyongyang as we wished, but I knew it would be like this from the start. The one thing I insisted on was that I could film 24/7 wherever Dennis was, because I knew that would get me to the heart of the action.
Besides not upsetting the authorities, were there any other unique or bizarre film-making challenges that you encountered when shooting in such a unique location about such a controversial subject?
More often than not when you’re making a documentary, building up trust along the way is key and the same applies here. North Korea is a very risk-averse nation and building trust was incredibly difficult…it probably doesn’t show in the film, but we did build up trust and we were rewarded with not having to have our hours upon hours of films checked every night before we could sleep, which happened at the beginning.
Switching gears… what was the most amusing or memorable part of making the film?
Sorry, I can’t pull out one moment of hilarity. Dennis is generally very funny to be around and also a bit scary at times. I do remember laughing a lot (whilst pinching myself checking I wasn’t dreaming) at some of the obscene but very tasty 18-course banquet meals we were treated too whilst we were out there following Dennis’ training sessions.
I noticed the documentary uses a fair bit of North Korean music in the background. What’s the story behind that — how’d you source the songs, how’d you decide which ones to put in?
I bought lots and lots of CDs when I was in Pyongyang and chose my songs purely on musical fit and not words or lyrics…one song crops up throughout the film in various forms and this was a song that we heard constantly whilst we were there and brought back lots of memories. I think the words mean “nice to meet you”.
How do you even deal with licensing for North Korean music?
Excellent question, I made a very generous donation to the Ministry of Culture via the Embassy.
Is there a story behind the film’s title? It’s quite witty.
My very good friend Danny Brooke-Taylor from Lucky Generals came up with it…I guess it was an ironic play on Muhammad Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle or Thriller in Manila.
Has Dennis Rodman seen or had any comment about the film since its release?
Overall, Dennis’ trips to the DPRK have been the subject of a lot of speculation about what he got up to, and this documentary is the true story. He has seen the film and, although he might wish certain things didn’t happen, he’s happy that it’s a very fair and accurate portrayal of what really happened when he went to North Korea and staged the biggest basketball match the world has never seen.