Ever since it retreated from the world and turned out the lights, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been a subject of fascination for true democracies. We were going to mention delusional, self-aggrandizing authoritarian leaders given to propaganda and nepotism, but something gave us pause. Instead we’ll just say that the following documentaries about North Korea serve as cautionary tales about the dangers of isolationism and the cult of personality.
1. Children of the Secret State (2001)
In this 2001 documentary, two British filmmakers, posing as tourists, follow the efforts of a North Korean freelance journalist, Ahn Cohl, to show how his government allows orphaned children to starve and die. The filmmakers highlight Ahn’s point by contrasting it with the bizarre, abandoned theme-park-like vibe of the country’s capital, Pyongyang (the filmmakers compare it to “a multimillion-dollar film set”), and with the special treatment given the children of the nation’s elite class. While Children of the Secret State is primarily about the fate of orphans in North Korea, it’s also about the challenge of documenting the humanitarian crisis there, and about the gross abuse of power and money to favor the few. —Allison Gorman
2. Kimjongilia (2009)
Kimjongilia premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009, two years before the ascent of North Korea’s current ruler, Kim Jong-un. But his father, Kim Jong-il, known for his big glasses and bigger hair, was no less an enigma to the West than his son his now, and his authoritarian policies no less harsh on the North Korean people. Kimjongilia billed itself as the first film to fully expose the human rights and humanitarian disaster in the Hermit Kingdom. While that’s not necessarily true, it does offer the critical perspective of North Koreans themselves—from artists to former prisoners and military officers who managed to escape the regime and were willing to talk about life on the inside. —A.G.
3. Songs from the North (2014)
Released in 2014, Songs from the North is less a documentary than an art film—director Soon-Mi Yoo calls it an “essay film”—that seeks to humanize the people of North Korea, who, ironically, are usually treated as a monolith by filmmakers seeking to highlight their suffering at the hands of an erratic, propagandistic regime. For anyone who was weirded out by footage of thousands of North Koreans sobbing uncontrollably at the death of an evil despot, Kim Jong-il, this movie offers an interesting perspective. As Soon-Mi notes, “To look closely and objectively at North Korea, a country that challenges our most fundamental assumptions about the human condition, is ultimately to question the meaning of freedom, love and patriotism.” —A.G.
4. Under the Sun (2015)
For as long as there have been documentaries, there have been debates about what exactly constitutes “reality” in those films. Every documentary filmmaker is offering his or her version of the truth, and observant audiences should always question the “reality” they’re watching. It’s not that these directors are actively deceiving us—it’s just that real life is never quite as unvarnished or straightforward as we pretend to think it is. Under the Sun, released in 2015, doesn’t just bring these questions to light but makes them part of the film’s central focus. Daring and thought-provoking, director Vitaly Mansky’s film uses one North Korean family to examine how everyone—moviemakers, governments, even individuals—contorts reality to fit specific purposes. —Tim Grierson
5. The Propaganda Game (2015)
The Propaganda Game can’t be taken at face value, as it was made in cooperation with the North Korean government. Then again, that’s what makes it distinctly spooky; there’s something riveting and terrifying about any entity—person or government—that glibly lies in the face of facts. Director Álvaro Longoria was granted rare access to film in the country, but not without close supervision. Rather than trying to clandestinely document the dark underbelly of a failed state, he instead captured what beauty he could find in North Korea—primarily in its long-suffering people—with the “propaganda game” as the movie’s subtext. —A.G.