Here, I speak with the creators, two Aussie students, Alex Apollonov and Aleksa Vulovic, creators of hit documentary The Haircut (2017) A North Korea Adventure.
1. How did you come up with the idea, and why?
Generally, with all the media we consume on a daily basis, we came to the realisation that North Korea was special, in that you could say whatever you want about it, and it would be believable. No matter how bizarre the story, reputable news companies and random clickbait websites would spread it around virally.
(Photo, Aleksa and Alex, both 24 at the time they traveled to North Korea and students at the University of Sydney. Aleksa studying International global studies and Alex am studying Social Work. Both of Alex’s parents were born in China and are of Russian backgrounds and migrated to Australia when they were young children. Aleksa was born in Belgrade, Serbia and migrated to Australia with his family in 1996 when he was 4.)
We ended up getting into a lot of arguments with our friends regarding the ridiculous news stories about North Korea, and we decided to focus on one of these bizarre stories (particularly the haircut) in order to talk about the weird relationship western media has with the DPRK.
This seems to be mirrored in the various “travel videos” and documentaries filmed in North Korea. Where, in order to get views and make themselves seem like brave Indiana-jones style adventurers, everyone seems to follow the same sensationalist narrative.
2. Where did you find finance for the project?
Where do Australians finance their projects of getting drunk in Thailand for a month? We saved up through casual work while we were studying so we could do a 3 month trip across China and Russia, visiting the DPRK for 2 weeks in between.
3. The production is amazing, can you say more about that, the complexities of the project (all the archive material, effects, etc)… and the style is definitely alternative, how did you come up with that concept?
Thanks so much for the kind words! Neither of us had any experience in video-editing so it was all learnt through trial and error, and we’re very happy with the skills we’ve learnt along the way.
In terms of the style, we had a specific message that we wanted to push regarding North Korea, and that was for people to understand the countries specific, unenviable context in the international community and realise the West’s role in degrading and demonizing the country.
The problem is that the average internet user won’t sit through any of that. So we decided to use humour to try and break that barrier. Also, we decided to frame it in the same “clickbait” way that all those horrible North Korean news articles are framed to get attention. So we tried to hook people in with the bizarre story of “going there just to get a haircut” and hope we could hold their attention long enough to change their mind.
4. Did you really just go there? How was it to be there? Where did you stay, did you need accreditation etc?
It was surprisingly easy to get there. They seem to be pretty eager to get tourists into the country as they are aware of the western media narrative and their form of tourism offers them an opportunity to provide a different narrative to foreigners. So we just filled out of a form online with a tour company, and it was sorted out really quickly with minimal effort (less effort than we went through to enter China or Russia during the trip).
So we staying in the Yanggakdo hotel in the middle of Pyongyang, and we were accompanied by chaperones whenever we left the hotel. We travelled down to the DMZ and stopped at some other towns along the way.
It was quite an interesting experience. We did feel constricted in the sense that we were on a guided tour, but the select places that we did see were a lot nicer than we had expected.
The most surprising thing we encountered though, was the reaction from fellow tourists, who refused to see North Korea in any way other than the dominant Western narrative. We’d be on the train to Pyongyang, passing through 100s of kilometres of corn fields, and the tourists, high on their own self-importance, begin to speculate how it was acres of “fake corn”, set up just for them.
5. Did the authorities there know what you were doing? What’s it like to be a journalist there, any restraints or?
The authorities weren’t aware of what we were trying to do. We just went in on tourist visas. But with the proliferation of YouTube, the line between tourist and journalist is pretty vague. They allow people to come in on tourist visas and film with all kinds of camera gear, as long as they called themselves “tourists”. I assume, if we were affiliated with a media company, they might have cottoned-on and made us apply for a journalist visa which is notoriously hard to get. But at the time of filming, we weren’t sure of what we were actually trying to make or aware of how much attention our little project would get.
Note, in the event, The Haircut attracted global media attention, and is rising towards 200,000 views on YouTube, and towards 150,000 on Facebook.
6. Did you speak to people there, or film any interviews with them? Can you do that?
The main issue is that we didn’t speak any Korean. There were times throughout the tour, when we would ride the metro, visit the circus, partake in mass dances etc. and be face to face with regular North Koreans. But we weren’t capable of having proper conversations, so we would rely on our guides to translate. So unfortunately, our general interactions with locals was limited.
That being said, we were quite surprised to bump into a few foreign residents living in North Korea, like a family from Dubai that we spoke to at the waterpark.
7. It’s nearing 200,000 hits on YouTube, how would you gauge the response yourself?
We are very surprised by the response! This was our first ever video, without any film-making experience and without any followers or any kind of Social Media presence. We’re very happy with the reception. Although, we did reach out to numerous news outlets in Australia, and eventually it snowballed on its own and we went through a period of interviews. Generally, the commercial media manipulated our story in order to push the already established narrative about North Korea… we made a follow-up video about it here.
8. You contacted me about this a few months ago, what is your take on the situation in Donbass, which I’ve covered a lot?
I think there would be some similarities between the two. Here in Australia we are exposed to very limited news about Ukraine, and the news we do get is heavily anti-Russian. We think you do some amazing, brave work on the ground there and we have watched many of your videos as a sobering alternative to the unbalanced stories coming from Western Media here.
9. You can see the metrics of your video – where have people been watching from, have you had any offers, proposals, threats as a result?
The majority of viewers (30%) are from the U.S, which is great seeing as their country is the most involved in the crisis on the peninsula. They are followed by Australia (20%), UK (11%) and Canada (5%). We’ve had some people offer to translate it to Portuguese and Urdu, which brought in a lot of viewers from Brazil and Pakistan.
We were very happy to receive an offer from “In The Now”, which is associated with RT, so we’ll see what comes of that!
We have received some backlash on the internet, but mainly it has mainly been entertaining right-wing trolls:
WHAT A BUCKET OF FUCKING BULLSHIT. AND “WE KNOW OURS WORK” .. YOU, MOTHERFUCKER, ARE **NOT** AN AMERICAN, AND GIVEN THE FACT THAT YOU CONDONE A SATANIC COCKSUCKER LIKE THAT LITTLE FUCKING WEEBLE KIM FONG DIPSHIT, YOU WOULD NEVER BE WELCOMED HERE. GO FUCK YOURSELF, YOU PIECE OF FUCKING SHIT.”
10. Was it just you and Alex there? Will you keep working together, ideas for a future project?
It was just the two of us doing the trip together, although while we were in North Korea we were part of a guided tour with 15 other people. We’re still making content together and have a whole lot of ideas for future projects. We’ve been having a lot of fun putting things together and hopefully we can get a big enough audience to share it with.
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