It is fair to assume that a documentary focused on a country with frequent human rights violations would be a political one. However, from the first episode of Michael Palin in North Korea you could almost imagine watching it alongside Kim Jong Un’s propaganda videos. Long panning shots of serene countryside are the first glimpses we get of the state, followed by the welcoming smiles of Michael Palin’s two guides who, alongside 10 government officials, follow the film team’s every move.
The show aims to portray the humanity of North Korean citizens, but in a country with such strict propaganda laws it is difficult to believe that every shot, interview and sound byte hasn’t been heavily regulated. This is where Michael Palin in North Korea falls short. Palin comes across as an untrustworthy narrator since he seems so infatuated with the country. It is nearly impossible to truly marvel at the interesting things presented, as the viewer is constantly questioning the authenticity of it all. What the North Korean government want to be filmed is interesting in and of itself, but this has to be accompanied by a discussion of the fact that what’s being shown is certainly not the whole story.
Palin rarely voices the negative aspects of North Korea, and when he does it’s only in passing. However, he does visit a local school and a propaganda arts centre to try and figure out why everyone appears to be full of admiration for their leaders. His discussion regarding the impossibility of ruling purely by fear and his investigation into the sense of community are fascinating. Whether or not these insights into the day-to-day life are honest, they are remarkable to watch. In these moments the viewer gets to see Palin doing what he does best, engaging with the people who make a country what it is.
One of the more touching moments in the show are the Workers’ Day celebrations. Millions of people gather to dance, sing and drink in a park. Through this, the viewers are able to see the more ordinary side to North Koreans’ everyday lives. Here, Palin remarks that “if you want to learn anything about this country you’ve got to prise the door open gently [and] earn their trust”. Perhaps this is true. Maybe it is not Palin’s job to expose the problems in North Korea, but to open a dialogue between our country and theirs.
However, this view does not seem entirely plausible. North Korea is not just a nation with a different outlook to the UK, it is a country with internment camps, where there are reports of infanticide and public executions. There is a danger in looking superficially at how different their culture is and not discussing the history of oppression and authoritarian rule that made it that way. Palin has produced wonderful documentaries in the past, but his charming personality seems out of place here.
Image: Conan_Mizuta via Pixabay