BROOKE GLADSTONE: It took Dutch journalist Peter Tetteroo six years to gain entry to North Korea, a country that has been without anything resembling a free press for more than half a century. When he arrived with his co-director Raymond Feddema, an expert on the region, they were herded like cattle from one monument to another, speaking to no one but government-approved tour guides. And with footage that amounted to little more than a relentlessly choreographed travelogue they crafted a documentary in which the pictures are constantly at war with the narration. Their film called Welcome to North Korea airs on Cinemax this Tuesday. Tetteroo says they got into the country by posing as part of a scientific delegation eager to see the glories of Pyongyang.
PETER TETTEROO: We had two small cameras looking as amateur cameras. And as long as we were filming things that are contributing to the picture they want to portray, it was fine with them. You go to exhibits, you go to museums where everything looks perfect. And what we tried to do in the film is have the Koreans show it their way, and count on the interpretation from a western audience to see how different reality is from the way the North Koreans try to portray it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I understood the peculiar and almost impossible situation you were in as a documentarian having to deal with footage that had nothing to do with the truth and little to do with the story that you wanted to tell. Nevertheless, I felt that you were--maybe the expression is "gilding the lily." Let me give you an example. There was some amazing footage that you managed to get, secret footage, of the towns that you weren't allowed to go to, at least one town, where you saw starving people boiling roots and eating bark, clearly on the point of death. And the footage was very disturbing and didn't need a soundtrack, but you added one anyway. [SOUNDTRACK]
NARRATOR: The people in the country are suffering in silence and dying. [MUSIC] Scenes filmed in secret of people cooking tree bark and clay just to have something in their stomachs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did you come upon that footage?
PETER TETTEROO: We got it from a Chinese relief organization.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And why do you think you needed to add the ominous music behind the scenes that were already so full of despair?
PETER TETTEROO: Yeah, well that's a matter of taste, I think. In this stage I decided to use this music and I think it contributed to the whole atmosphere. But maybe one can argue that it was a big much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Maybe it is simply a question of different news styles, after all. But when you're getting a rare glimpse of a nation that has been, as you know, shrouded in mystery for so long, whose image has been spun not only to outsiders but its own people, don't you worry that you need to be even more cautious about how you describe and present the images that you bring back?
PETER TETTEROO: Of course. You know, it's it always the responsibility of journalists to make sure that you don't exaggerate what you're trying to show to people. It's always trying to find a balance between saying enough and not saying enough. And you're trying to make sure that you can bring it in front of an audience, people that are not necessarily interested in what's going on in this country. And I have to persuade them, I have to get them into the story and, of course, one can always argue that you overdo it. One can always argue that you should not add that much music or strong words or whatever to this picture. But, you know, when you realize that you're one of the few that are able to go to a country which is so isolated, to keep up your cover, then this is the maximum one can do, I think. And, of course, this will never be the ultimate film about North Korea. But it's one of the first films about North Korea. And to me that's much more exciting even.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Probably the most chilling bit of footage was a bit of archival tape. It was, I guess, at the countrywide mourning after the death of, who they call the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung back in 1994. The citizens were beating their breasts and wailing and moaning, and it was hard to tell whether this was merely more choreography or the cries of a bereaved nation.
PETER TETTEROO: Mmm-hmm (AFFIRMATIVE)
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's hear a little of that. [SOUNDTRACK]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Knowing what you know about North Korea after your time there, do you think that was real? Or do you think that that was for show?
PETER TETTEROO: I think mostly it was real. On the day Kim Il Sung passed away I was sent as a reporter to Raymond Feddema because he is an expert, to interview him about how can they force that many people to mourn, you know, with a gun on their head, as a matter of speaking. And he said no, those people are not--all of them forced, this is the way they are brought up, they are brainwashed to a standard which we cannot imagine, and this of course, is even worse than being forced. And when he explained it to me, that was the moment I thought I want to go to that country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter Tetteroo, thank you very much.
PETER TETTEROO: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter Tetteroo is the Co-Director of Welcome to North Korea that airs this Tuesday on Cinemax. [MUSIC, SINGING]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, when pundits doubt themselves and rolodex cards revolt.