The Pyongyang International Film Festival

An invitation card welcomes filmmakers to attend the 2012 Pyongyang Film Festival in this screenshot from the PIFF website. Photo credit

It’s prime movie season in much of the world: the summer blockbusters are all played out, and the year’s awards contenders are being released in anticipation of winter film awards like the Oscars. I always like awards-y films; I tend to like those better than all but a very few of the big Hollywood blockbusters, anyway.

With awards-y films come film festivals. Venice, the world’s oldest film festival and one of the industry’s “Big Three” along with Cannes and Berlin, happens every year in early September. Toronto, perhaps the most popular and influential festival outside of the so-called Big Three, took place over ten days from September 6th to the 16th.

Following these two festivals came one of the world’s least-known film festivals: the Pyongyang International Film Festival. It happens every two years, but it’s not surprising that few people know about it; Pyongyang is a city much less amenable to international tourism than, say, Venice, or Toronto, or Berlin. But if you had a chance to visit Pyongyang, you might be surprised at the films you could see.

The opening sequence of a video presenting the 13th Pyongyang International Film Festival plays the opening fanfare of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra in the background at the time of this screenshot. Image credit stimmekoreas via YouTube.

At the Pyongyang festival, North Koreans and foreigners can watch these films side-by-side (though surely most of the North Koreans at the festival are the well-to-do people of Pyongyang). The films ranged from selections produced in country to films from China, France, Egypt, and even Pakistan.

Pyongyang’s roster of films isn’t as industry-leading as the other major festivals, but it is surprisingly diverse for an event far outside the typical reaches of the film world. This year, the festival screened films for diverse tastes, including:

  • A romantic comedy from Britain (“The Decoy Bride”),
  • A kung fu film by Jet Li (“Flying Swords of Dragon Gate”),
  • A Swedish vampire movie (“Frostbitten”),
  • A social drama about family troubles in Pakistan (“Bol”),
  • And a comedy about Spanish émigrés set in 1960s Paris (“Les femmes du 6e étage”).

North Koreans have a surprising love for cinema, and the diversity of the films in this festival is certainly surprising to me. The Pakistani film “Bol” is certainly a good example. “Bol” raises questions about male-dominated societies, the place of religion in families, and the acceptance of transgendered people; it’s hard to imagine how North Koreans would react to seeing such a film.

A poster presents the Pakistani film “Bol”. Image credit Eros International via Wikipedia.

The festival also screened films from, among other places, Russia (“House of the Wind”, “White Tiger”), China (“Qian Xuesen”), the Philippines (“Dive”), Switzerland (“Tones of Passion”), Indonesia (“Day In Day Out”), and Egypt (“Asmaa”).

Prizes were announced on September 27th. The grand prize went to a film from Germany, “Der ganz große Traum”. That film also won the prize for Best Actor.

One of the more interesting selections was “Comrade Kim Goes Flying”, filmed in North Korea but co-written, edited, and directed by a British/Belgian/North Korean team. It won Best Direction.

Entertainment may not be as much of a cause célèbre as politics or human rights, but celebrity—even in entertainment—isn’t really what’s important. Entertainment arts have the capacity to bring people together, whether they are audiences sharing a theater together or viewers communing with the makers of a film through the medium of a screen. We can watch films made in a different language, in a different culture, and still love them. Sometimes we can watch them without any dialogue at all—Pixar’s wall·e is a great example—and still understand everything we need to.

The Pyongyang Film Festival is a surprising and wonderful attempt to cross cultural boundaries. It brings people together through something shared more deeply than politics, language, or even culture.

The next festival is scheduled for June 2014.


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