Explore the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in this intriguing time-lapse of a city rarely seen by foreigners. Escorted by British-based company Koryo Tours, filmmakers Rob Whitworth and JT Singh offer up typical scenes of daily life in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Although certain limits were placed on what they could film, this short provides glimpses of insider moments, including riding the subway, circling historic monuments, and visiting a local skate park. I spoke with filmmaker Rob Whitworth a bit more about the film and his trip to North Korea.
How were you able to gain access to Pyongyang?
The majority of the sites featured in the video form part of a standard city tour organized by Koryo Tours, who organised the project. However, to make the video we required access to certain locations multiple times, at odd hours of the day, and for extended periods of time. I would imagine this might seem very strange to people unfamiliar with the shooting process. Koryo Tours’ experience working with KITC (the DPRK tourism board) made it possible.
What surprised you most about being in North Korea?
Surprised isn’t really the right word. I would say I was beguiled—everything is just so very different, sort of like entering an alternate universe. At its core Pyongyang is a city lived in by humans going about their everyday lives. I think a key part of travel is learning more about where you’re from and your own values and beliefs. Being in a place so very different really makes you think.
Take advertising. Some people’s reaction to the video has been how colorless the city looks. If you think about it, a lot of the color we experience in cities consists of adverts competing for our attention.
Did you encounter any difficulties trying to film in certain places?
Sadly, I’ve yet to experience a shoot without any difficulties! I guess something different with this one was that our guides initially had no idea what we were trying to achieve. We shot over 20,000 raw files creating the video. At first I’m pretty sure the guides thought we were horrible photographers or at least very indecisive. It took a few days for them to get used to our way of working.
The rules are pretty fixed with regards to what can and cannot be photographed, for example, construction sites, military bases, and not cropping images of the leaders. I think not shooting military bases is reasonably universal and the others were pretty easy to avoid. There were also little things, like having to all get in the van and be driven across the road rather than just walking on occasion.
Do you have a favorite shot in the film?
I think the shot of the girl in the skate park is my favorite. Korean people are very reserved, and most of the sites we were shooting from were large, deserted monuments, so being in and amongst Pyongyangian people was quite rare.
The metro and skate park where exceptions to this. Particularly the skate park was amazing. It was May Day (a public holiday), the sun was shining, and the park was packed with families having fun. We got to skate around for several hours completely on our own. [There’s] something very leveling about skating around and falling over together.
I think the little girl in the video says something like, “Oh, they are filming.” Such a lovely moment.
What are you working on next?
Many many things. In particular I’m about to start a huge project in Dubai. Not much I can say [about it] at the moment, but it’s going to be on a scale only Dubai knows.
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