To describe my interest in North Korea as “intense” might be an understatement. If there’s a book or movie about North Korea, I’ve probably read it. In fact, I actually traveled there a couple years ago, back before it was illegal for US citizens to do so.
Given all that’s going on with North Korea as of late, I thought it might be useful to compile a list of the 10 most interesting documentaries about North Korea. Ranging from the insightful to the humorous, these film can help you understand North Korea better even while you’re still in the safety of your own home.
Let’s take a look!
1. Inside North Korea (2007)
If you’re just beginning to learn about North Korea and want a balanced, comprehensive, and approachable perspective, this National Geographic documentary is your best bet. Unlike other members of this list, it’s made for TV and thus only runs 50 minutes. While it’s slightly outdated and doesn’t get into all the nuances that make the DPRK as interesting as it is, it’s way less sensational than something like Vice’s famous guide to North Korea (which you might observe isn’t on this top ten list).
2. Crossing the Line (2006)
Did you know that six American soldiers defected to North Korea during the Cold War? This 2006 documentary features two of them: James Joseph Dresnok and Charles Robert Jenkins. Besides telling a unique story, “Crossing the Line” offers one of the most thought-provoking explorations of how North Americans perceive Americans and other Westerners.
3. A State of Mind (2004)
Between 2002 and 2015 (with some interruptions), North Korea held the annual Arirang Mass Games. These were mind-boggling performances in which 30,000+ children performed impressive coordinated gymnastics displays in Pyongyang’s main stadium. Chances are you’ve probably seen pictures of these performances, and for that you can thank “A State of Mind” — which profiled two young girls as they trained for 2003’s Mass Games. Besides bringing outside attention to the games, this is also the only film thus far that’s provided an intimate look into the minds of North Korean children as they grow up in a closed regime. That fact alone makes “A State of Mind” worth watching.
4. Dear Pyongyang (2005)
Many ethnic Koreans live in Japan — and some of them are loyal to North Korea. In the 60s and 70s, many of these Japanese Koreans sent their sons and daughters “home” to North Korea. Filmmaker Yang Yong-hi’s father was one of them; and he dispatched Yang’s three brothers to live in North Korea — where they’ve remained since. In “Dear Pyongyang”, Yang journeys to Pyongyang with her father and explores why he made that decision decades ago. This documentary is worth watching because it’s not only highly poignant, but also because the relationship between Japanese Koreans and North Korea is a complex but highly important issue that many Western outlets neglect.
5. The Lovers and the Despot (2016)
This documentary is about the 1978 abduction of South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and film director Shin Sang-ok. In a happenstance stranger than fiction, Kim Jong-il (who happens to be a massive movie buff) forced Choi and Shin to make multiple films in an effort to jump-start the North Korean film industry. Though this documentary can get kitschy at times, it’s a solid bet if you want learn more about Kim Jong-il’s eccentricities or North Korean movies.
6. Under the Sun (2015)
“Under the Sun” is the most philosophical and artistic documentary I’ve seen about North Korea. By no means does this mean the film is esoteric or inaccessible. Originally, Russian filmmaker Vitaly Manskiy wanted to make a regular movie but, after realizing the North Koreans wouldn’t give him any artistic control, he ended up surreptitiously providing a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a propaganda film. Unbeknownst to the North Koreans, Manskiy kept the camera rolling between takes of the propaganda movie, revealing how his hosts carefully curated a message that would fit within the confines of their ideology.
Side Note: Read my standalone review on “Under the Sun” if you’re interested in more details!
7. Songs from the North (2015)
This documentary’s title is rather self-explanatory — “Songs from the North” is a compilation of propaganda songs, archival footage, and the director Yoo Soon-mi’s own travel footage from North Korea. While this makes for a somewhat esoteric piece that feels more like a video essay than a traditional documentary, I happen to think that you can learn quite a lot from a nation’s propaganda songs. Furthermore, this is one of the trippiest documentaries in existence, as your mind starts going to weird places after hearing ode upon ode to Dear Leader. For the best experience, consider watching “Songs from the North” after learning a bit more about North Korea.
8. Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang (2015)
You might’ve heard how former NBA star Dennis Rodman is best buds with Kim Jong-un. “Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang” is a behind-the-scenes look at that bro-ship. Specifically, it documents Rodman’s 2014 attempt to stage a historic basketball game between US and North Korean players. Though there’s a popular Vice documentary that shadowed Rodman on a previous trip, “Big Bang in Pyongyang” offers a simultaneously more insightful and hilarious look at one of the 21st century’s most unusual attempts at citizen diplomacy.
Side note: If you’re interested, I previously interviewed the director of “Big Bang in Pyongyang”.
9. Aim High in Creation (2013)
Who says there’s nothing to learn from North Korea? Not Anna Broinowski, an Australian filmmaker who traveled to Pyongyang to learn the art of propaganda filmmaking, Kim Jong-il style. After soliciting tips from North Korean directors and actors, Broinowski attempts to apply her learnings to a video protesting gas mining in her native country. Perhaps the most light-hearted film on this top-10 list, “Aim High in Creation” highlights the absurdities of North Korea in a way that’s accessible to general audiences.
10. The Red Chapel
Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger is known for pulling controversial stunts in dodgy parts of the world (ex. buying an ambassadorship from Liberia). As such, it’s no surprise he decided to go to North Korea and make “The Red Chapel”. In this documentary, Brügger and two ethnically Korean comedians (one of whom is disabled) pretend to be a Danish theater troupe and subtly lampoon the North Korean regime through their performances. While Western audiences can immediately perceive their (oftentimes cringe-inducing) mockery, due to cultural isolation and lack of Danish knowledge, their North Korean minders don’t sense anything awry.
Are there any North Korea documentaries you’d recommend? Want Cinema Escapist to do more lists like this for other countries? Let us know in the comments below!