Welcome to the Land of Whispers

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The documentary “The Land of Whispers,” which was filmed in North Korea, has garnered more than 800,000 views since it was released on You Tube at the end of March. Its director, Chrystian Cohen, made the film on trips to Pyongyang, Chongjin and Wonsan over ten days in August last year, for the purpose of filming the nation’s landscape and the lifestyles of its people. With its powerful stylistic approach, the film has been well received by many viewers. Daily NK intern reporter Im Go Hyang recently contacted Chrystian to discuss the film.

▲ Did you visit North Korea just to make a documentary?

I wanted to visit North Korea and I wanted to make a film – but before the trip, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with the video or whether making any kind of film was even feasible. So I arranged a little deal with a travel company that runs tours to North Korea – I agreed to film a small promo for their company in exchange for permission to film video. We also agreed that I’d be able to use the captured footage for my own projects later. It was only when I came back home and I started looking through the footage that I started thinking about how I could use it all to put together an interesting film.

▲ Was it easy to film in North Korea?

It was a very challenging shoot. I had to get permission from the North Korean guides every time I tried to film anything. Even when I was allowed, I was often hassled by the tour guides. They’d block my camera any way they could, they’d yell at locals if I ever tried to film anyone (even when I received consent to film from the locals themselves). The guides straight out accused me of being a spy, an undercover journalist and so on. They made it very difficult to get any quality shots. Sometimes even my filming of landscapes, with no people or towns anywhere near was an issue for them. That was unfortunate, especially as they had known beforehand I was coming there to film. I also had very limited equipment – I had planned on bringing more gear but in the end I’m glad I didn’t – they’d never allow me to use it, they’d never give me enough time to properly set things up and I would’ve just needed to drag extra stuff around with me. So my gear was very minimal – really just a camera, two lenses, and a little audio recorder. That made shooting easier, I could be quicker and more discrete.

▲ In the film, you emphasize the contrast between the imaginary image that the North Korean authorities want foreigners to take away and the actual reality most people there face every day.

Actually, I do not think there’s an “imaginary image” just for foreigners. I think a part of the mysterious paradox of North Korea is that you never actually know what is real and what is not, what is right and what is wrong, what is truth and what are lies. Most North Korean people seem to accept what they see/hear/experience, even if it seems illogical/wrong/bizarre to outsiders. I don’t know if it’s due to fear of pointing out the obvious, if they’ve genuinely been conditioned to accept everything without asking questions, or if there’s a whole other reason I may not understand. I walked by a grocery shop in Pyongyang. Aside from the handful of actual fruits they had for sale, they had mostly plastic fruits on display. The explanation I got was that it was ‘decoration,’ with no further discussion. Do they really not question why the stores have fake fruit on display? Or is it that everyone knows things are very strange yet they’re afraid to point it out? I don’t know the answer to that question.

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▲ You refer to the Soviet Union of the 1930s in the introductory text. What cultural similarities and differences did you find between the two?

Well, of course both North Korea and the Soviet Union were based on the same general ideology. While I did grow up in ex-Communist Eastern Europe, I never lived in the Soviet Union so I can’t know firsthand. But I imagine North Korea now is pretty much a time capsule of what the Soviet Union must’ve been like in the past. Of course, the architecture is similar: the giant buildings covered in marble, the trains and train stations that reminded me of the ones in Belarus, where I did visit before. Visually, things are very similar to images of the Soviet Union. There’s very little color in the whole country. People generally wear dark, drab clothes and most of the people are in/connected with the military, donning military uniforms and such. Then, there are shows like Arirang. I sat during that performance and felt as if I was at an Olympic opening performance in Russia 50-60 years ago.

▲ While almost all viewers of the film responded positively to it, some argued that its distribution may lead to more restrictions and/or repression imposed upon travelers and people in the places you shot. How do you respond to these claims?

So far, I didn’t see/meet/hear anyone responding to my film with concerns that it may lead to future restrictions for tourism in North Korea. In saying so, all that I can add is that I was as transparent, open, fair and cautious in my making of this film as possible.

Unlike many actual reporters, I did not enter the country undercover. I wasn’t funded by anyone and I spent my own money on travel and filming expenses. I received prior permission to film; anytime I was asked to stop filming, I did; anytime I was asked to film something in a specific way, I did so. While editing the film, and even in the first few weeks after the film’s release, I was also (as much as possible) in touch with relevant parties in order to ensure the film doesn’t affect anyone in a negative way.

It was a tricky process because I wanted to make sure everyone in North Korea stays safe. I wanted to make sure that the people who assisted with my travel/film don’t get negatively affected and, at the same time, I wanted to be honest and truthful about my thoughts and experience. That’s nearly impossible when I got such extremely different views on each end of the spectrum, but I am really proud of the good balance I feel I was able to achieve in the film. I still stand by the film fully and I feel it was as objective as possible, especially considering the circumstances.

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▲ Have you asked any broadcasters to air the documentary? And if so, what were the results?

I have discussed the project with a number of companies and media outlets, but have been rejected by every single one. While I would’ve liked to have my project broadcasted on television, in the end I just wanted people to see the film.

Making a few bucks would’ve been nice, but it was not a priority, and considering the nature of the film, I thought it may actually be better, more responsible of me to release the film on a ‘non-commercial’/’non-profit’ basis. And really, the film did better than I ever expected! It’s nearing one million views online already, and the response has mainly been very positive.

Also, it was great to have The Pirate Bay help promote my film as their main page doodle. They’ve been greatly helpful and very supportive, which is something that I cannot say about any of the big or mainstream media companies I contacted. Thanks to The Pirate Bay, the film was able to reach an even wider audience. As a final note, with the help of a few awesome volunteers from all over the world, the film is available online in, I think, ten or eleven (subtitled) languages now. In a way, it’s available to a much wider audience now than it may have been had it just screened on television.

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