In furthering my obsession with North Korea over the last two years, I’ve seen countless videos from various news organizations, Vice, and youtubes of tourists who’ve visited the isolated Country. I came across a dope trailer for a upcoming documentary that will be released this year called “Juche Strong”.
The documentary is about the 2010 North Korean soccer team that for the first time in 40 years, competed in the World Cup. It also goes in depth with policy experts discussing the Countries ideology. The only thing more exciting about it’s release later this year, is that the creator of the doc lives right here in DC. Rob Montz, a film maker, soccer lover, and Action Bronson fan took time to do a Q&A session with me which has to one of my favorite interviews to date.
HOR: What was the creative spark or idea that started everything in making “Juche Strong”? Was your trip to the DPRK to enhance the film or for the overall cultural experience?
Rob: The spark was really two separate impulses fused together. I’d want to make a documentary film for a long, long time. And I’d wanted a project that could basically serve as self made film school for me — i think graduate education generally is a massive tumor on the American economy and film school in particular is a masturbatory unhelpful waste of money and time. Secondly, I’d wanted to make a documentary about North Korea. It’s fascinating for a bunch of obvious reasons. But I didn’t have a hook. Then the 2010 world cup happened — NK was participating for the first time in over 40 years. A bunch of crazy things happened to the team. And I finally had my story to tell about the country. Later that summer after the Games ended I applied for the first fellowship that financed the film and with Juche Strong coming out this winter it will be about two years total for the whole production.
About the trip itself — it came at the end of the production process. I wanted to take footage of the country myself — the economics of licensing b-roll are such that it was significantly cheaper for me just to go out there and shoot then shell out insane quantities to freelancers and major media outlets for footage that’s generally sub-par quality anyway.
But also, I really wanted to smell the country — I wanted to experience it in a concrete way, not purely in theory and from a distance. I’m saying some very specific, slightly controversial things about the North Korean people in my film and before I pushed those ideas out into the world I needed to test them against reality. There’s just only so much you can know about a place from blog posts and tweets.
HOR: With all the things going on in North Korea, what made you decide to do a documentary about the 2010 World up the team?
Rob: I love soccer. And NK’s World Cup campaign itself is a really interesting story. About half of my film is kind of high-minded super analytical theorizing about the country — it’s nice to be able to balance that against a more visceral and visual sports story. My inclinations are such that if left to my own devices my documentaries would just be visual versions of like a ponderous sophomore-year term paper. I really like presenting big ideas through film. But that’s not enough to sustain a good doc — the audience needs a story too. There needs to be some narrative hook in there, some specific characters they can emotionally connect to. And the World Cup just happened to present a really good hook.
HOR: Most people who research the DPRK before traveling there get a pretty good understanding of what will happen as far as the guides escorting you and the pro-government tours, what did the first couple hours feel like once you arrived?
Rob: Surreal of course. Very much that feeling of “I’ve seen this building or this mural 100 times on video and now it’s right in front of me.” Most surprising was the guide though — you have two. But one is the main talker. And in my mind the guide was going to be much more stir and controlling and unfriendly that he ended up being. Ours was basically the north korean version of a kindly midwestern Presbyterian youth minister — kind, earnest, curious. I spent the first night there drinking heavily with a couple people from another group and a few guides and that just felt like a Tuesday in DC.
HOR: There is a lot of anti-American sentiment in North Korea and the government propaganda machine helps fuel that but do you feel that it’s kind of a double edged sword in relation to how Western media depicts North Korea?
Rob: I wouldn’t say double edge sword exactly but i do think the American media’s coverage of NK is so bad it borders on a war crime. You just saw it in the press about North Korea’s olympians (who did surprisingly well at london). The stories were either a) north koreans are mindless, brainwashed automatons or b)some outlandish, unsourced story about the latest evils from the North Korean regimes. For a), the most poignant moment for me was when the male North korean weighlifter won a gold medal and thanked the spirit of Kim Jong Il for propelling him to victory. There was an avalanche of mockery from a couple of big time American blogs that covered it. But how is that any different than an American athlete thanking, say, jesus after winning a gold in gymnastics?
And on b) there were these ubiquitous reports about north korean olympians that don’t medal getting thrown into labor camps once they get home. Now, the north korean regime is certainly capable of some gangster shit — there are 100-200,000 people in the country living in labor camps. This regime certainly commits some vicious human rights abuses. But that labor camp story has zero sources — it’s not clear where it originated from, there’s no evidence to support it, etc. But the western press uses NK’s reputation as an excuse to pass along as gospel any gossip about NK’s latest nefarious doings. And that’s particularly irksome to me because stories like that uniformly ignore the equally — if not more — important roll that ideology plays in keeping the country running (and that of course is the chief focus of my film)
HOR: I noticed you used Action Bronson for the trailer music. Does the film have a hip hop influence music wise or is that just a favorite of yours?
Rob: The fact that you recognized the artist for that song quadruples the likelihood we’ll become best friends. My corgi puppy’s name is Bronson. AB is one of my top 5 living humans on the planet. And yes the soundtrack for the film itself is deeply influence by hip hop — there is an original song in the film hand-crafted by a very talented composer friend of mine that sounds like some combination of Def Jux-era RJD2 and the not-bad albums from DJ shadow
HOR: In the preview, you have a policy expert talk about America’s underestimation of North Korea, what do you think after doing this film that the U.S. needs to do to better understand North Korea?
Rob: My pretentious response is that if I could tell you precisely in words I wouldn’t have made a film about it. My non douchey response is — recognize that North Koreans are flesh and blood people just like the rest of us. They aren’t aliens. But they are under the influence of an intoxicating, specifically designed and careful dispatched state ideology. And the key compelling elements of that ideology share 98 percent of their DNA with political and religious rhetoric as practiced in the united states.
HOR: What is the most important thing you want people to take away from watching your film?
Rob: My answer here is basically the same one to the last question — recognize the important of ideology and propaganda in North Korea’s “success.” International experts have been predicting the imminent collapse of this country for nearly two decades. And it’s still here. And in many ways it’s stronger than it was just a couple years ago. And that’s in large part because the ruling elites have gotten most of the population to buy into a grad national project via propaganda — it’s given them purpose, and purpose will help retain loyalty even when your country has been suffering severe famines on-and-off since the mid 90s
HOR: Since we also cover food on the site, we have to ask… How was the food like? Any meal that stood out to you. Also, do they eat bacon over there?
Rob: All our meals — save one pizza lunch — were pre-planned by the touring company. About 85 percent is just thoroughly mediocre version of Korea, Japanese and American cuisine. 10 percent is truly awful — every fish dish I ate was disgusting and i suffered the greatest of all abuses by being forced to drink exclusively instant coffee the whole time i was there. And 5 percent of the food was genuinely delicious. Our second to last night in Pyongyang we had korean bbq — you cook the meat at your table just like you would at a south korean place out in Reston. Pack it in with some rice and a lettuce wrap and cover with sauces. And it was goddamn delicious. And I definitely ate pork but I don’t think it was ever in bacon form
We hope to do a follow up later this year with Rob once the doc is released. For more info, check out the Juche Strong page here