Monday, August 11, 2014

"Enter Pyongyang" Hyperlapse Video Review

A friend shared this video on Facebook, and I had to take a look. First impression: it's well-crafted and beautiful as a film. No surprise there, since Vimeo is the video sharing site to go to if you have something pretty to share! I'm a sucker for timelapse and hyperlapse (that is, timelapse + shifts in perspective) videos anyway, so simply watching this was a treat.

I'm a little concerned about the message it's sending, however. The pros are that the video will dispel myths that Pyongyang is completely destitute, crumbling to pieces, and cut off from the outside world. These are pretty much untrue, but that doesn't mean it's, like, a nice place to live. So the cons are that the video can easily give a false idea of what Pyongyang, or even all of North Korea, is like.

Here's what I thought as I watched the video: where is all that light coming from? There is so little electricity available in the city. The cityscape is not that bright at night. The computeres in the grand library are only on for a few hours each day. And where is all that color coming from? Maybe my camera is not as nice as the equipment used for this video, but the dominant color in every photo I took in North Korea is gray.

The subway is exactly how I remembered it, though. Like my tour group, the filmmakers were only allowed to see the few nicest and busiest stations of the two-line system. Even though the platform was grand and lit up, the train was dated and dark inside. I was caught by surprise by a tender moment when the sped-up footage slowed down to show an old man entering the station, and again when it paused to let a traffic cop stop and chat with a lady pushing a stroller, again when a little girl at the roller-skating rink spotted the camera. These brief moments that revealed ordinary human actions and interactions did make me smile.

But again, that does not mean North Korean society is harmonious or normal by any standard. The filmmakers worked closely with Koryo Tours, a North Korean tourism company, so it's not surprising that the footage shown was neat, aesthetic, and even attractive. It's the image a tourism company wants you to see. It's also the fabricated facade that the DPRK's totalitarian regime wants you to see. They don't want you to see that the inside of the gorgeous pyramidal Ryugyong Hotel is skeletal and unfinished, only that the lawns on the outside are green. They don't want you to see the dilapidated apartments in the western parts of the city that have no glass in their windows, only the newly-constructed ones (that, despite their appearances, have their electricity shut off at night just like every other building in the city besides the monuments). They don't want you to see anything outside of the capital city, either: none of the concentration camps, the starving gangs of orphan children in the northeast, the abandoned factories that have produced nothing for decades, the hills stripped completely bare of their forests, the desperate men and women who smuggle food, drugs, and people across the border to China. None of these things are supposed to exist in the Kim dynasty's sterilized image of the Victorious Fatherland. It's not that I expect them to show up in what is essentially a three-minute advertisement, but I'll be frank: the North Korea that you have just seen is not the North Korea that you need to see.

This video used awesome technology and uplifting music to reinforce the idealized image of Pyongyang. I wouldn't call it propaganda, and it's not like anything shown in the video is actually fake. But it's easy for pretty things to convince the world that pretty is all that exists, and I caution any viewer from drawing the conclusion that because a couple of professional filmmakers were allowed to tour the capital of North Korea with their cameras, the entire country is actually brimming with "dynamism and [a] sense of potential."

North Korea is a long way away from really opening up to the outside world, but when it does, I hope that someone with the same advanced equipment as well as a heart for millions of oppressed and suffering people can enter and show us more than this.

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