The nuclear program, human rights violations, starving people - that's what most people know about North Korea. But what movies North Koreans watch is hardly known outside the reclusive country.
"People keep looking straight ahead and walk really fast in North Korea. Nobody is ever looking around," says Choi Sunju about her first trip to North Korea in 2008. She also found it striking to see donkeys and oxen in the streets whenever she left the cities. "My impression was that it is lagging 30, 40 years behind, and there has been no progess since the 1970s, rather stagnation or even setbacks."
The reality in rural areas does not always match the bright posters
The 41-year-old German-Korean was born in South Korea. But her family came to Germany when she was 12. She writes movie scripts and works with the Asian Women's Film Festival which was held in Berlin for the second time last year. Her first encounter with North Korean cinema took place two years ago.
"I was introduced to the North Korean delegation at the Berlinale," Choi Sunju remembers. "They were really keen on making their films better known abroad and gave me lots of DVDs."
Movies show more about the country than intended
So Choi Sunju started watching the movies. Cinema in North Korea is not entertainment with popcorn and coke, says Choi Sunju. The movies are dominated by messages the government wants to transmit. The same 'official' pictures keep cropping up again and again, but in between one also gets an impression of what North Korean towns and villages look like, she maintains:
"Of course, North Korean films are completely different. But they are still interesting, because they show a lot more about the country than actually intended."
Foreign films are censored
In 2008, Choi Sunju was then invited to the 11th International Film Festival in Pyongyang. The festival which is held every two years in North Korea's capital mainly shows movies from the few countries allied to North Korea, such as Iran, China or Cuba. A strict 'code of ethics' is enforced, Choi Sunju explains:
State propaganda is omnipresent in North Korea
"This films are basically censored. There are no sex scenes. They simply cut them out. In 2008, a kiss was shown for the first time. It was in a Polish movie, and was not edited out. And naked breasts were shown for the first time, too."
About 100 foreign guests were the biggest part of the audience, but Choi also discovered some ordinary citizens in the cinema. "It's one of the few chances for normal citizens to buy tickets and watch foreign films too," she says.
North Korean films in Berlin
At the second Asian Women's Film Festival in Berlin last year, Choi Sunju presented five North Korean films, including 'School Girl's Diary'. The 2006 movie is about a school girl who comes to understand during the film that her father can't devote himself to his family, but must sacrifice himself for his country instead.
In order to make people in the West understand North Korea better, Choi Sunju also went out into the streets there with her video camera. But it wasn't easy, she remembers, because there is always an official guide monitoring each and every step.
"You can always pretend that you are not filming," she explains. "I recorded many scenes in the streets. North Koreans also celebrate and have fun, go to parks for a picnic. I filmed a department store - but after ten minutes people came and stopped me."
This autumn, Choi will return to Pyongyang for the film festival. She also plans to accompany a school child for a week and make a documentary about everday life in North Korea. But she doesn't know yet if she'll be allowed to do it.
Author: Bumsuk Lee / tb
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein