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Starring: Eugene Chang, Susannah Kenton
Director: Slavko Martinov
Running Time: 96 mins
Propaganda is a New Zealand documentary showing the failures of the Western world and how the elites have brainwashed the world’s masses into following their cynical ideologies through use of propaganda, told from a North Korean perspective.
Never before have I come across a film like this. A film that breaks all the possible rules to the extent that I can’t even form a coherent opinion on it. Propaganda is a film that’s both an ingenious, unique and stunningly-produced work as well as one that’s incredibly unsatisfying, frustrating and arguably pointless, such is its unorthodox nature.
And given that unorthodox nature, I’ll have to break my cardinal rule of non-spoiler reviews. Now, you may think that of all genres, a documentary is not one that would merit a spoiler warning, but that’s another rule that Propaganda smashes as well. So, before I delve into the mystical majesty of this simultaneously stunning and infuriating film, I suggest anyone who is simply intrigued by the premise to go away and watch the film before reading this review. It’s available free on YouTube right here.
So, let’s try and figure out a way to look at this film. Starting from the simplest perspective, it’s a fascinating insight into how the concept of a propaganda machine works. There are all manner of things about the film that change monumentally depending on how you watch it, but the one thing that is consistent is its portrayal of the idea of propaganda, by being a propaganda movie that itself criticises propaganda, despite the glaring hypocrisies in such a situation.
The big problem with this film, and the reason that I find it so hard to find a way to rate it, is the fact that it’s not a real North Korean propaganda movie.
I think it’s important to tell you how watching the film unfolded for me, because I think that I have a strongly balanced take on how the film can be viewed. For the first half, I felt as if I was watching a genuine propaganda film that had been leaked from North Korea. For me, its portrayal of the failings of the Western world were fascinating, incredibly bleak, and even a little bit funny, something that riveted me throughout.
Then I took a brief break halfway through, at which time I was informed that the film isn’t actually a real North Korean propaganda piece, but a hoax, created by a New Zealand filmmaker and starring a non-North Korean ‘expert’ in the central narrating role.
That’s where things changed dramatically for me, as in returning to the film, my entire view on what was being presented was now shifted. In thinking that the film was a North Korean propaganda piece, I could accept its scathing attacks on the West and understand what position it was coming from, while also enjoying the ironic nature of its hypocritical nature, in being a propaganda piece that criticises propaganda and brainwashing, yet being exactly that.
Upon realising that that wasn’t the case, however, I was suddenly struck by two completely opposite feelings. On the one hand, I was stunned by how convincing and well-made the film was, and the fact that I was one hundred percent fooled into thinking that it was a genuine North Korean film.
The screenplay, which regularly refers to Western leaders as ‘degenerates’, ‘liars’ and all sorts, is ingenious throughout, and a major player in making things so convincing. The directing is also incredible, given the ability to make such a dark, twisted and bleak film that you can actually believe it comes from the highest level of one of the planet’s most dictatorial regimes. In short, this is a brilliantly-made film that carries out its objective flawlessly, completely duping you into thinking that it is a genuine article when it is anything but.
However, as impressed as I was by that, I also found myself rather unsatisfied and irritated upon learning that the film wasn’t genuine. Now, nobody likes to be fooled, so that’s definitely a small element of my frustration, but the fact that the film no longer had a clear voice behind it (that of the North Korean government) made it really difficult to grasp.
I understand the surreal and unorthodox concept of being a meta-propaganda film, i.e. being propaganda that talks about propaganda, but what I’m still totally unable to grasp is what the film’s political message is, or whether it even has one at all.
Again, as a simple North Korean movie, you accept that this is an attack on the West and that’s it. However, when you learn that it’s made by someone from the West, it becomes a labyrinth of confusion, as it’s unclear whether the film is more intent on mocking North Korea’s over-the-top, aggressive and false propaganda machine, or is actually trying to be the same scathing attack on the West as I thought it was at the beginning.
And then there’s the possibility that it could be neither, and that the entire film is just there as a hoax to confuse you and get you talking about it. It’s completely unlike anything I’ve seen before, and that’s what makes it so difficult to grasp, simply because there are numerous totally different ways to view the film, and yet in the knowledge that it isn’t a genuine article, you’re able to watch from all of those perspectives simultaneously, but be so confused by their contradictions that it’s impossible to formulate a concrete opinion on the film itself.
In the end, that’s why I feel I can’t give this film any sort of concrete rating. On the one hand, it deserves huge acclaim for being a fully effective and convincing hoax that features stunning directing, writing and a convincingly bleak and dark atmosphere. It’s also incredibly unique, and will definitely have you thinking about it for a long, long, long time afterwards. On the other hand, the very fact that it’s not a genuine North Korean propaganda film makes it ultimately a very unsatisfying and rather infuriating watch, while further confusing you as it becomes nearly impossible to tell what it’s message or conscience is, or whether the whole thing is in fact a pointless exercise that’s intended to dupe you, rather than offer something more insightful into either the failings of the West or those of North Korea.
So, that’s why I can’t give this film any rating. It’s a brilliant piece of work that deserves great acclaim, but is also a frustrating, unsatisfying and possibly even pointless film, which is why I’m giving it an N/A.