It’s been an incredibly busy year for North Korea politically. And as December saw the death of leader Kim Jong Il, few (and by few, I really mean me) were recalling that this time last year saw the first screening on North Korean television of a Western movie. Of course, Russian, Chinese and other friendly communist countries have had films broadcast on sate TV before, but the appearance of Bend It Like Beckham (2002) on December 26, 2010 was an absolute first.
Earlier in 2011 I managed to get into contact with Peter Hughes (UK Ambassador to the DPRK from 2008-2011) and asked him how this event managed to be organised. After some delay – apparently there are things even more important than this website going on over there – he responding with the following article. You will also note the good people at Koryo Tours had a hand in getting it on TV and – despite what the media reported – not as much of the movie was edited out as was first claimed. Anyway, not strictly about North Korean films but you may find it interesting:
During 2009 we at the British Embassy in Pyongyang were looking for ways to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the UK and DPRK. We wanted to do something different that would have significant impact and enable us to engage with North Korean people at all levels to introduce them to our way of life and values, and encourage them to become more open to, and feel less threatened by the outside world.
I was very fortunate to have a willing and enthusiastic ally in Nick Bonner of Koryo Tours. Nick has been involved with North Korea for more than 15 years through bringing tourist groups into the country, but his involvement does not end there. He has organised international exhibitions of North Korean art, arranged friendship sports events between Koreans and westerners, is the international coordinator of the biennial Pyongyang International Film Festival, and has been involved in the production of three award winning documentaries about North Korea: “The Game of Their Lives” about the North Korean team at the 1966 World Cup; “A State of Mind” which follows the training and family life of two North Korean girls in the lead up to their participation in the Pyongyang Mass Game; and “Crossing the Line” which tells the story of US soldiers who defected from the South to the North in the 1960s. Nick is presently involved in the first ever collaboration between a western and North Korean film crew in producing the film “Comrade Kim goes Flying”, a romantic feature film shot on location in Pyongyang.
During a brainstorming session one evening Nick and I hit upon the one thing that we knew North Koreans loved: football. In 2010 DPRK would participate in the FIFA World Cup Finals for the first time since 1966 when the finals were held in the UK and the DPRK team was based at Middlesbrough. The DPRK team caused one of the biggest upsets in football history that year when they defeated the favourites Italy. In the intervening years the bonds between DPRK and Middlesbrough had remained friendly.
Ladies football is particularly popular in the DPRK and their national ladies teams has performed well on the international stage in recent years, no more than recently when they participated in the 2011 Ladies World Cup Finals in Germany. Although they did not get further than the first stage of the competition they played well against the ‘giants’ of the ladies game the USA and Sweden.
We therefore thought that it would work to bring the Middlesbrough Ladies football team to DPRK to play some friendly games to mark the tenth anniversary. Once we started working on getting the team to Pyongyang, we began to consider expanding the women’s football theme by asking to show the award winning British film film “Bend it Like Beckham” on national television. The film continued the theme of football and had won an award at the 2004 Pyongyang International Film Festival. Showing the film would enable us to reach the whole population of North Korea and open their eyes to the realities of western society. Despite some reports in the western media that the film had been heavily censored before the broadcast, only some eight minutes were removed, and it was very difficult to establish what was taken out.
After the film was shown we heard reports that the whole of Pyongyang (and most of the country too) had been buzzing with people talking about the film, not just because it was the first western film they had seen on TV, but also because of the themes it contained including multiculturalism, equality and tolerance. To a man and woman they all appeared to have enjoyed the experience.