The rhetoric surrounding North Korea is jarring, to say the least. British and American coverage of the country tends to focus on the perceived oddities of Kim Jong-Un, or the atrocities of the nation’s regimes and nuclear programmes. Seldom do we hear from North Korean civilians themselves, and when we do, we tend to concentrate on tales of plight. Roxy Rezvany’s new short film Little Pyongyang voices frustration with that mode of expression. Not just a North Korean story, the film is an exploration of the nature of documentary storytelling itself, and the way design can empower and elevate it.
Roxy has been working on the film since 2014 when she first became aware of the North Korean community living in New Malden in London. Located in the south-west corner of the capital, the area is home to one of the world’s largest communities of North Korean defectors and is an area Roxy knows well as her long-term partner used to live there. “When my partner’s youngest brother said to the family one day, ‘my best friend Joon is North Korean’, it was the first time that I had considered that there a North Korean diaspora present in the UK, and felt almost embarrassed for being surprised,” she says, recounting the genesis of the project.
Following that conversation, Roxy set about getting to know the local community of defectors. “When I spoke with refugees there was a strong feeling that there was not enough humanising coverage of their experiences,” she tells It’s Nice That. “This was my starter motivation for creating the film.” While working on an article that would “break” the story of the community in New Malden, she was introduced to Joong-wha Choi by a prominent North Korean activist called Joo-il Kim. “During this interview, Joong-wha just conveyed such emotion and complexity whenever he spoke,” she explains. This experience formed the basis of Little Pyongyang, of which Joong-wha is the focus.
The result is a tender and stylised documentary offering a revealing panorama of the experience of a refugee. “The first time I interviewed him he says at one point ‘I sometimes say to myself that it would be great if there was somebody else who risked their life to escape and could be the one to get things done’,” Roxy explains, “That admission always came back to me and it offered me a perspective of that experience that I’d not considered before.” As well as featuring Joong-wha’s individual story, Little Pyonyang tells another story, a collective one, through its design and production. “I knew for this film to have an impact it would need to do more than seem like ‘just another film about a refugee’s suffering’ – and I really wanted this to be the sort of film that even people who aren’t into current affairs could be encouraged to watch,” Roxy tells us.
Joong-wha formerly served as a soldier in the DPRK. He now lives with his wife and children in New Malden and works in a warehouse on the A3 motorway. While he enjoys the new-found freedoms and comforts that have come with moving to the United Kingdom, he still harbours a desire to “return to the land that betrayed him yet is undoubtedly his true home”. This complex quandary is one that Little Pyongyang works hard to translate and visualise. It allows Joong-wha to dictate his own narrative, not an enforced one, while simultaneously opposing the visual tropes of documentary film.
While tracking the literal and emotional journeys relayed by Joong-wha, Little Pyongyang’s designs offer an “outlet to fully explore the depths of what he narrates and all the ambiguity and complexity of what he is communicating, beyond words,” Roxy says.
Working with production designer Kat Hawker and set designer Louis Gibson, as well as graphic designers Maya Badouk Epstein and Erica Dorn, the short documentary unearths preconceptions of North Korea, “a sort of ‘leave behind everything you think you know’”. With pink, which is part of the North Korean palette, a motif throughout – as a subtle nod to Joong-wha’s act of resistance – imagery from Nicholas Bonner’s Made in North Korea and Oliver Wainwright’s series Inside North Korea become symbols of a situation much bigger than Joong-wha’s alone. They convey what it means to be a refugee in of itself and “help to convey the way you can feel simultaneously great regret, pain, sadness as well as joy and goodness encapsulated in memories and through nostalgia.”
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