When VICE correspondent Ryan Duffy landed in Pyongyang, North Korea in March, he and his crew were not greeted particularly warmly.
“We were on the bus from the airport to the hotel, and one of the minders sat down next to [VICE producer] Jason and I and said ‘I know who you are, I don’t like you, and I don’t like your company,’” Duffy recalled, at a screening of the season finale of “VICE” on HBO.
The VICE crew were engaged in a game of gonzo journalism with the North Korean regime, conceived when VICE co-founder Shane Smith and a colleague were on a train traveling through Siberia, looking to shoot footage on North Korean labor camps. Smith was banned from returning to North Korea after the documentaries he shot were viewed by the government.
“The reality of it was that I saw what everybody else saw,” Smith said. “We wanted to see something that wasn’t shot, that wasn’t out there, that wasn’t the same tour over and over again.”
They decided that the key to getting into the country, and seeing a side of it that hadn’t been seen, was through basketball diplomacy, knowing that Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un was a huge Chicago Bulls fans.
“We reached out to a few Chicago Bulls, and [Dennis] Rodman said yes,” Smith recalled. “Michael Jordan’s camp was not interested, I believe.”
Back in March, when VICE announcedthey were in North Korea with former Chicago Bulls legend Dennis Rodman, the Harlem Globetrotters and cameras for their upcoming HBO series, it made international news. Rodman appeared on ABC’s “This Week” when he returned stateside (and subsequently canceled all the other planned interviews). As it happens, Duffy and the VICE crew were still in North Korea when Rodman returned, not aware of the news he was making.
That news included a pickup basketball game between the Globetrotters and the North Korean national team. The game serves as the focal point of the episode, following a clearly staged tour of the country. The official tour, which has been covered by other outlets throughout the years, nonetheless sticks out as the most memorable part of the episode. A man on a computer stares at the Google homepage for an agonizingly long time, typing nothing, searching for nothing. At North Korea’s version of Sea World, the dolphin trainers insist that Kim Jong-un choreographed their routine, as they give thanks for the successful nuclear test. The crew are shown a machine that allegedly both enlarges women’s breasts and cures breast cancer, with a red placard indicating that Kim Jong-un inspected it himself.
The VICE crew, Rodman, and the Globetrotters also had dinner with the North Korean leader. Disappointingly, no cameras were allowed, and it gets glanced over in the episode, aside from some brief video clips and still photos from North Korean state media, and the recollections of Duffy and his crew. The program ends with what seems to be a genuine moment, as the buses pull over to the side of the road and the Globetrotters interact with some North Korean children playing basketball on an outdoor court. Even here, the “Truman Show”-esque element of the country raises the question as to whether this was unadulterated fun or staged play. Duffy says that he believes it was authentic, having asked if they could stop there.
The lack of footage from the dinner may be disappointing to those who read about the trip, as the voiceover simply doesn’t go into the detail viewers may be hoping for, especially after waiting for a few months after hearing about it.
“[CBS News chairman]Jeff Fager and a bunch of the ‘60 Minutes’ guys came and said to us ‘you have got to get it out now! It is hot! Get it out, do it!’ and we would have, but we had 36 hours of footage to squeeze into 30 minutes,” Smith said. “We needed all the time we could to finish it.”
“Our general philosophy there was turn the cameras on, and then turn them off when we board the plane to leave,” Duffy said, noting that at times the government minders would force them to turn their cameras off, or leave them on the bus.
Footage that couldn’t get into the show will be posted online, including another (relatively) authentic moment, as the Globetrotters had lunch with the North Korean national team.
The season finale of “VICE” on HBO, documenting the trip, will air June 14 on HBO.