What a Westerner found at a North Korean Film Festival

The World
Poster from previous Pyongyang International Film Festival.

A poster advertises films at a previous Pyongyang International Film Festival.

Pyongyang International Film Festival

Mitch Moxley is a film buff and so when he heard North Korea was holding its biennial film festival, he knew he had to be there.

He paid Koryo Tours about $2,000, plus airfare from Beijing, so he could spend eight days in the Kingdom. And it was quite an adventure.

First, he found himself in a small airport in the capital, Pyongyang.

"As soon as you go through immigration, there's two huge paintings of the Kims," he says, referring to the current leader Kim Jung-Un and his father Kim Jung-Il.

He described his trip to North Korea as like being in the movie "The Truman Show."

"It feels like everything is strategically placed ... especially for you as a tourist. They're allowing you to see what they want you to see," he says.

Moxley has been to many film festivals across the world but none like this one.

"This was definitely the strangest film festival I've been to — and I can't imagine going to one more strange," he says.

But contrary to what outsiders might think, Moxley says, there were a surprising range of films that were shown at the festival.

"It was very diverse. There were films from Iran and Russia and Myanmar," he says. "There were movies from Western countries. For example, the opening film was a British movie," he adds.

There were also short films from Canada, Australia and lots from India.

"Apparently North Koreans are very in to Bollywood movies," he says.

According to Moxley, Kim Jung-Il himself loved movies, with some 20,000 movies in his collection. He's also credited with pioneering the small film industry that North Korea has today.

"Kim Jong-Il was a fixture on set," Moxley says. "He wrote two books on film and he would give guidance to actors on set and was supposedly behind the camera for a movie or two."

Kim Jong-Il loved movies so much that he famously "kidnapped" South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and locked him up in a prison camp. Eventually has was released and "allowed" to make films with Kim, including "Pulgasari," a monster movie considered to be North Korea's Godzilla.

The director eventually escaped.

While Moxley believes film festival was a good opportunity for cultural exchange, it was also a propaganda event. Moxley says the attendees from 30 foreign countries gave North Korean officials a form of credibility they could tout to the rest of the world.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Mitch Moxley's nationality. He's from Canada.