By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire July 24, 2013 at 5:21PM
From consumerism to Columbus Day to celebrity culture, the film "Propaganda" (available to watch in whole online) slices open contemporary Western culture for its rewriting of history and its imperialist and corporatist policies. The film was released in ten parts last year, uploaded bit by bit with the title "North Korean film exposes Western propaganda," and was eventually accompanied by this statement, by Sabine, the woman who translated the film.
On a trip to visit family in Seoul in April, I was approached by a man and a woman who claimed to be North Korean defectors. They presented me with a DVD that recently came into their possession and asked me to translate it. They also asked me to post the completed film on the Internet so that it could reach a worldwide audience. I believed what I was told and an agreement was made to protect their identities (and mine).
Despite my concerns about what I was viewing when I returned home, I proceeded to translate and post the film on You Tube because of the film's extraordinary content. I have now made public my belief that this film was never intended for a domestic audience in the DPRK. Instead, I believe that these people, who presented themselves as 'defectors' specifically targeted me because of my reputation as a translator and interpreter.
Furthermore, I now believe these people work for the DPRK. The fact that I have continued to translate and post the film in spite of this belief does not make me complicit in their intention to spread their ideology. I chose to keep posting this film because - regardless of who made it - I believe people should see it because of the issues it raises and I stand by my right to post it for people to share and discuss freely with each other.
When the film debuted at the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA), the ruse was lifted. The film was made by a group of New Zealanders; it was written and directed by Slavko Martinov. And, in fact, now the film's crew and a brief history can be found on the film's website.
But the film, with its original descriptions on YouTube, still exists, and clips from it continue to be shared across social media networks. Sometimes commenters know what's up; sometimes, they think the film's really from North Korea. People post parts of the film surprised that the North Koreans have a more searing critique of our own culture than we do.
Indiewire talked with the film's director Slavko Martinov from his home in Christchurch, New Zealand over Skype, a week before the film's July 31 US premiere at Michael Moore's Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan.
Now that you've come clean, I've noticed that when someone comments on YouTube in a way that shows they don't know it's not really North Korean, you play along. How do you balance responding to the people who are congratulating you, Slavko, and dealing with the character, Sabine?
It's weird and twisted you know. Things are much easier now in terms of responding to people. When you surreptitiously release this thing on the Internet the way we did, with a metafiction, we were literally responding as this person, this fictional person. At first, there was no precedent for it, you start doing it, and you have to ask yourself how is this going to pan out. That's it, there's no getting out of it. Even when we submitted to IDFA -- we said we have this disc, we just got it, it's North Korean. Even though you know the purpose of what you're doing, it was very sticky. The day we came to IDFA and said we did it, we thought that was it; what an interesting social experiment that was! As you can see on YouTube, people still believe it. There's this willingness to believe that it's North Korean. Someone will say, "Look at this RT interview with the director," but the next 2 or 3 comments are about the North Koreans and their motivations for making this film. That's one of the questions we wanted to ask: how do we understand what we see?
So how did you decide to make a film criticizing what you saw wrong with Western culture in this way?
It's part of a trilogy of films about propaganda. It was a social experiment about propaganda. I wanted to make a film about propaganda. If you make a film about how propaganda works, it's going to be as dry as a bone. I had a short list of Iran, Cuba, and North Korea. North Korea sticks out like a sore thumb. It'll be about propaganda in a propaganda campaign, a metafiction. It's propaganda-squared. You can't just do it and go to a distributor. After the first wave of people saw it, it blew up. There's nothing else you can do but conduct a social experiment this way. People came up to me at IDFA to buy this film, I said you know it's online. I could see them become sick. Really no one's seen this film in the scheme of things. It's still a hidden film.
There's no rulebook. On the one hand, it's been exciting. When so and so did this similar thing, you could kind of lean on it as kind of a model or something. We honestly didn't know. We made a lot of mistakes.
What kinds of mistakes did you make?
We don't regret any mistakes. Just the stupidest things -- it might seem insignificant to you. But sometimes, I'd get tired and sign in to one email account and send an email as another. We had no idea a single person would ever see it. We knew we were being watched before we ever made the film. The first time I ever sent the script, I got a call from a counterterrorist unit. As part of the research for the film, I was collecting footage in Kuala Lumpur -- i found these jihadist videos -- I didn't look at them. I was stopped, and the authorities were like "Wow man, you can't do this." It was no coincidence, when I wrote that script and sent it, that they knew about it.
And why did you think it was important to have the film in parts online?
That's the story behind the film. Sabine came into possession of the film, and she was translating it as fast as she could in parts. She was passing it to a friend of hers who was an editor. They were posting it in chunks, a bit at a time. The question of the entire project was: if you have a film and you release it on the internet, there's no advertising, marketing, nothing, because you don't exist as a director? What happens if you put it out on the Internet and say nothing. Would anyone ever see it? You just don't know, you create this whole backstory the descriptions underneath part one. You put tags in: North Korea and propaganda -- it goes from there. You just watch it grow. After the first one went up, people are like "WTF is this? Where's part 2?" And then, Sabine says "I'm translating it!" Before long, people are demanding, "Where's part 5?" "What the hell's going on?" "Why's it taking so long?"
And were you surprised at what people did and didn't share?
First of all, it's the most unsharable film you can imagine. Ninety-five minutes of being slapped about the face of your core beliefs as a Westerner. You're hardly going to be popular with your friends if you share this. However, part 9, which is about celebrity culture is entertaining and enough of a chunk that people can pay attention, that's nearly at a million views now. We always thought that particular segment would take off. Part 3 -- we thought that would take off. The rivalry between Australia and New Zealand is fierce, although, they're our brothers and sisters across the pond. There was an ad mocking Kiwis -- it was front page news in both countries. It was a direct provocation written with love. We were thinking it would be what will ignite the whole film, and away we go. Nothing! Not a thing! No response! I'd even write the script keeping in mind what's going to work -- what will provoke certain emotions. I'm saying I got it wrong.
And what was the global response to the film?
We were investigated by the NAS -- South Korea's CIA. I was asked, "Are you in collusion with the North Korean regime? I started writing and researching at this point -- I started guiding them through the process. Yeah, but prior to 2003, when were you contacted and commissioned to do this. What do you say to that? How do you even deny that logic. To them, what really worried them was that North Korea had stepped up their game, they had hired a western filmmaker to make a PR coup.
And do you have a sense of how the film is playing in North Korea?
They have their official website, and there's an unofficial website that's run from outside of North Korea. They had picked up on the film, and they were posting it in parts, except they removed the text from the front [that made claims that the film was made by the North Korean government]. The assumption is that they weren't displeased with the film. I don't know, is it? How is this film viewed? That's the big question that I'm dealing with in the second film. I just don't know.
What's next for the film?
I get into Traverse City on the 30th, and then it plays at Raindance. Then of course the big goal is: Will it get into Busan [Korea's biggest film festival?] -- or the biggest irony of all -- the DMZ festival [a festival on the border of North and South Korea in Paju, South Korea]?
It's taken you a long time to have your American premiere. Why do you think it's taken that long?
No American film festival would touch it -- after IDFA, Tribeca asked for it, and they were great, really really supportive and really really got it, and in the end, it stood out like a sore thumb for them. They were terrific with their communication and support. All other American festivals I entered didn't bother to be polite about it. One can only guess that Sabine was too much. Festivals are weird of course. I'm looking at Busan. On the one hand, it's going to be like drinking a cup of cold sick for a Korean audience. Festivals want to be controversial and cause a bit of a storm. Traverse City has been perfect. They couldn't be more supportive. They're thrilled.
It's difficult to talk to the festival programmers about this film. I assume it's even harder to talk to funders and others?
The only money I did have was to go to an entertainment lawyer after I read the fair use act, and he said I think you have a strong case. I set about collecting footage -- I use snippets of Michael Moore's films. What's going to happen when they find out? Am I going to get sued, or get a pat on the head? In Michael Moore's case, it's a pat on the head. As for getting sued… First of all, I don't own anything. What are they going to sue me for? Second of all, If Paris Hilton or Tyra Banks sues me, it's publicity I couldn't pay for. What are you going to do if you don't have any money?
And what's next for you?
I'm working on a lot of things. I love documentary. I have an international distributor that just came on for a TV series I've been developing. I've got development funding for a script I've been working on. Two drama series have been optioned. As for the second and third parts of this trilogy about propaganda, I've literally just sent away the applications for funding from New Zealand.
And are you excited to see it with an American audience?
It's always been one of the goals, to be present for that, a confronting audience. Hopefully that happens there. I'm prepared. I think I am.