Film As Propaganda

by Gabriel Mizrahi on August 13, 2012

Yesterday I published “When Great Cinema Becomes Propaganda” on The Huffington Post, a new article about Zero Dark Thirty, the upcoming film about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The movie has a fascinating backstory and huge implications for how the US government works with Hollywood on high-profile properties. (I’ll be discussing the topic on HuffPost Live at 3 PM PT, so check it out!)

The topic of

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propaganda is a huge one on The North Korea Blog. We can’t get enough. Perhaps no one does it better — or bigger — than the DPRK, which has built a propaganda machine so powerful and omnipresent that distinguishing fact from fiction becomes a Kafkaesque exercise in the absurd. It’s also quite funny. Just pick up a copy of the Pyongyang Times and imagine a day in the life of a propaganda writer for the regime. (That quickly becomes sad, but at least you have the articles.)

The controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty — namely, that the Obama administration might have behaved improperly in collaborating with Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal on the movie, which seemed designed to help Obama win reelection by highlighting his greatest accomplishment in a high-profile film — got me thinking about the propaganda potential for movies about current events and the regimes that rely on it to control their narrative.

North Korea knows a thing or two about agitprop (I’ll never forget passing a bus full of North Korean actors in Kaesong last year, a bizarre visual of actors playing actors playing actors), and as it happens, the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il was — you guessed it — an expert in the role of cinema. The man authored 1,500 works as an undergraduate, after all.

So I re-read The Cinema and Directing, one of the Dear Leader’s treatises on film, which I first read when I got home from North Korea last year. I have to say it was an even better read the second time around, and not just because I think the man is hilarious. I argued in my piece that studios and filmmakers are free to release

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movies whenever they wish — a freedom that is not only a pillar of the Constitution but essential to a vibrant marketplace of ideas — and Kim’s essay was the perfect counterpoint to the healthy discussion surrounding Zero. Consider Kim’s thoughts on the difference between “socialist” directors and “capitalist” directors:

In the capitalist system of film-making the director is called “director” but, in fact, the right of supervision and control over film production is entirely in the hands of the tycoons of the film-making industry who have the money, whereas the directors are

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nothing but their agents.

In capitalist society the director is shackled by

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the reactionary governmental policy of commercializing the cinema and by the capitalists’ money, so that he is a mere worker who obeys the will of the film-making industrialists whether he likes it or not.

This should be required reading in film school. Just saying. I wonder whether Bigelow and Boal feel the same way, what with their capitalist overlords brutally commercializing their meaningless work. American filmmaking is just so evil. Whereas

in socialist society the director is an independent and creative artist who is responsible to the Party and the people for the cinema.

Let’s just pause and enjoy that one more time. In socialist society (meaning here the Red-Confucian dictatorial dynasty of North Korea), the director is an independent artist who is responsible to the Party and the people. Doublespeak really is the currency of totalitarianism.

Back to Kim:

Therefore, in the socialist system of film-making the director is not a mere worker who makes films but the commander, the chief who assumes full responsibility for everything ranging from the film itself to the political and ideological life of those who take part in film-making. The director should be the commander of the creative group because of the characteristic features of direction. In the cinema, which is a comprehensive art, directing is an art of guidance which coordinates the creativity of all the artists to make an integrated interpretation.

Strange. I suddenly lost the distinction between the two. But such is DPRK logic.

This essay puts the whole discussion in perspective for me. Zero Dark Thirty, which has all the makings of a great movie, is also an opportunity for Obama to shine, whether or not he, the studio and the filmmakers deliberately sought to release the movie before the election (it was ultimately pushed back to December; for political or commercial reasons, we can’t be sure).

But if you want to know what real propaganda looks like, look to North Korea. And if you want to charge filmmakers with an agenda beyond telling a good story, remember how these regimes subvert the beauty of cinema. They seem to have it down. Even if they can’t always explain it.


Kim Jong Il in The Pyongyang Times photo credit: coljac via photo pin cc

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