Extraordinary as it seems, a small production unit from Vancouver spent two years travelling in and out of Pyongyang to make Closing the Gap: Hockey in North Korea. Perhaps even more extraordinary: while the crew worked extensively with the ministry of sports, director Nigel Edwards tells the Georgia Straight that they experienced virtually nothing in the way of official interference.
“There was nobody looking over our shoulders, none of our footage was reviewed, none of the filming was censored,” he says. “I think the North Koreans already do enough self-censoring as it is.”
Getting its world premiere at the Whistler Film Festival, Closing the Gap offers an invaluable perspective on a country met with suspicion and fear in the West. Players are uniformly polite but circumspect when they speak to camera, always pledging their on-ice efforts to honour “Dear Marshal”. When the DPRK national men’s team travels to Auckland, New Zealand, for an IIHF tournament, their Soviet-era style of play and failing equipment speak to North Korea’s painful isolation. UN sanctions, health-insurance issues, and cultural barriers create further havoc for the tournament organizers.
But the Gap being closed here is human. Ideological differences vanish inside the joys and disappointments of the game. Gradually, the film brings us a little closer to these men, while Edwards assiduously steers clear of the propaganda spilling from both sides.
“I think there’s maybe two shots of the giant statues of the Kims at Mansudae,” he says, “but there’s not a lot of western rhetoric. What we really tried to do is just highlight in the most delicate way a few individuals among a group of people where it’s not common to be an individual.”
In its poignant closing moments, the tables are reversed and the filmmakers are asked, “What do you think of our country? What do you think the people of the world are going to say?”
Edwards wisely cuts before we hear an answer.
“I remember coming back the first time, and I was so incredibly humbled by these people that we met, and the vulnerability they shared with us, and the conversations that we had,” he says. “North Korea’s a bit of a black hole, in the sense that the deeper you go, the more questions you have. For me to sum up North Korea in a digestible sound bite for people back home—it’s really difficult to do, but also, it’s not my place.”
Closing the Gap: Hockey in North Korea screens at the Village 8 Cinemas next Thursday and Friday (December 5 and 6).