What’s It Like to Make a Film About Life Under Kim Jong-un?


On January 14, FRONTLINE goes inside the Secret State of North Korea to explore life under the world’s youngest dictator, Kim Jong-un.

Using new footage smuggled from inside and never-before-told stories from recent defectors living in South Korea, Secret State of North Korea offers a rare glimpse of how some North Koreans are defying authority in a country where just being caught with illegal DVDs could mean immediate imprisonment.

It’s the U.S. debut of filmmaker James Jones, a rising star on the British documentary scene whose previous films include Broken By Battle (BBC), about the scale of suicide in the British military; Britain’s Hidden Housing Crisis (BBC), which tells the stories of people losing their homes in the recession; and Sex, Lies and Black Magic (Channel 4), which followed a Nigerian woman being trafficked to Europe to work as a prostitute.

Jones’ films have won a Grierson Award and have been nominated at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Royal Television Society, and Prix Europa Awards. Secret State of North Korea is Jones’ first film for FRONTLINE; he shares the story behind it below.

What was your motivation for tackling this particular subject?

Having seen the usual coverage of North Korea — angry men threatening nuclear war — we thought, “There’s more going on here.” The real story is: What is life like for ordinary North Koreans? And is the information barrier the regime’s survival depends on holding up?

We started speaking to Asia Press, a Japanese news organization whose network of secret agents inside North Korea risk their lives by filming daily life and illegally smuggling the footage out. Technology is making this easier and easier: Before, they’d have to smuggle out these big tapes, but now, you can get five small memory cards out in one swim across the river.

We flew to Japan, looked at what they already had, and agreed that they would carry on filming for six months for us.

What surprised you while making this film?

Pretty quickly, what surprised me the most wasn’t the poverty and poor conditions people live in, which are, undoubtedly, shocking. The really surprising stuff was the ordinary North Koreans — many of them women — who were standing up to authority in ways that even in the States or in England, you’d think, “Wow, they’re pretty bold.” But to see that happening in a totalitarian dictatorship is really something.

What drew you to documentary filmmaking and investigative journalism? Can you tell us a little bit about your previous films?

I studied Russian at Oxford and lived in Russia. When I left university, I wanted to work in journalism, but I needed money first! So I started off by working as a translator for the BBC on a TV documentary series about Russian oligarchs and just completely fell in love with it — sitting in the edit room, learning the whole process.

Then, I kept on working on current affairs-type documentaries. My most recent films have been investigations told through personal stories — character-driven, observational films that have an investigative edge.

The last film, Broken by Battle, was about soldiers in Britain committing suicide, and the way the Ministry of Defence is in denial about the scale of the problem. We wanted to find out how many soldiers and veterans had killed themselves last year, but also tell the personal, human stories behind the statistics.

We wanted to apply that same methodology to North Korea — not just, “Oh, this is an evil regime,” but also telling the stories of people who are doing amazing things. A former political prisoner, say, literally risking his life by going back to the place where he was captured. A defector who now floats balloons with messages to her family across the border. They had all been very badly treated, but they were trying to find a way to speak back against the regime.

How do you hope the American audience will react to this film?

I hope it will address a lot of the stereotypes that are out there. North Korea is a real place with real people. It’s as complex as other countries, and more and more, the North Korean people are not completely brainwashed. I think it will surprise people to see small signs of dissent taking form — like North Koreans who, even though they’re given anti-American propaganda, are obsessed with American movies!

I don’t think viewers will think any more kindly of the regime after watching, but hopefully, the film will genuinely challenge people’s preconceptions about the place itself and the people who live there.

Why are you excited to work with FRONTLINE?

FRONTLINE is a hugely prestigious brand. Filmmakers I admire in Britain – Dan Edge, Olly Lambert – have worked with FRONTLINE and said how great it is. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while. Working with David [Fanning] and Raney [Aronson] has been great. And when you do a film like this that you really believe in, and have put a lot of work into, it’s great that it can be shown to an American audience as well as a British one.

FRONTLINE’s Secret State of North Korea premieres Tuesday, January 14, 2014 on PBS (check local listings) and online.

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James Jones is the director of FRONTLINE's "Secret State of North Korea."
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