LOS ANGELES — You likely won’t hear about it on the festival circuit, but one of the most exclusive international venues can be found in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. The Pyongyang International Film Festival (PIFF) hosts submissions from all over the world. The festival’s goal is “to contribute to breaking a new ground of film art by promoting exchange and cooperation between world film makers with the ideal of Independence, Peace and Friendship.” The 13th PIFF consists of multiple perspectives, including Feature Film Competition, Documentary and Short Film Competition, Special and Informative Screenings and Film Exchange.

If your work is not selected, you might consider the North Korea International Microfilm Festival Work Collection, sponsored by China’s Utopia Group art collective and to be held in A4 Contemporary Art Center in Chengdu. Speaking with Blouin Artinfo, Utopia Group’s Deng Dafei and Ha Hei pointed at the serious underpinnings of the show:

“North Korea claims to be a real version of utopia. During the Mass Games, we remember people shouting things like, ‘North Korea is the world’s happiest country, and everyone in the world wants to come to live in North Korea!’ We think it’s very interesting, and perhaps only foreigners think that it’s funny. Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution wouldn’t think of it this way.” 

This connection with China is a critical one. North Korea famously exerts extensive control over its citizens’ access to media. They reportedly have a dedicated team just to stop the smuggling of media from the outside world, while they maintain tight control of the radio and television waves. Only a select few individuals have access to the internet, and those who do have access live in a world where the name of their leader, Kim Jong Un, appears slightly larger in font size than other words. That a film festival exists in this context can only be taken as a farce.

According to the admittedly clunky English translation, the dark humor can help shed light on the gravity of life in the country:

From the view of international society, rulers of North Korea are like a film crew, presenting various dramatic plots to people every day, and also showing to the outer world that leader is the biggest director. The whole North Korea is like an absurd and grave joke. How people treat the joke? There is no meaning to consume North Korea and regard North Korea as a topic of conversation at their leisure. But if we discuss something serious with jokes, reflect on ourselves and even human’s common failing with North Korea jokes, these jokes may become something more powerful than serious preach.

While the Chinese government’s media control is not nearly as extensive, it continues to control media organizations within the country with guidelines around censorship, and state sponsored internet commentators surf the same forums as common users. Utopia Group’s festival, then, can be seen as a commentary on propaganda and censorship as a whole, not just in North Korea. The fact that they take the jokes seriously is a sign of their understanding of humor as a powerful salvo against state control. (China’s internet, as I’ve written before, is rife with humor that pokes fun at the political system.)

All submissions are welcome from around the world, and the web site provides guidance on length and limitations. There will be awards for pieces like “Best Creativity” and “Best Script”, and an “Encouragement Award” will be given to as many pieces that deserve it. One wonders what submissions would like from North Korean citizens, if only they were given the chance.

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice.