Instead of pasting snapshots in an album like other tourists to North Korea, Jora Frantzis and Rashida Taher surreptitiously made a 13-minute video, "One Night in Nampho,’’ which won an award for best short documentary at the Action on Film International Film Festival in Monrovia, Calif.
While their friends were skiing in Vail, Colo., or tanning in Cancun, Mexico, Jora Frantzis and Rashida Taher spent their vacation in North Korea, celebrating the birthday of the late great leader of one of the most totalitarian regimes on earth.
Traveling through the "Hermit Kingdom’’ under 24-hour surveillance, they stopped by the demilitarized zone at the 38th parallel, visited a captured U.S. "spy ship’’ for a lecture on Yankee imperialism and stayed in a "five-star hotel’’ with rusty toilets, brown water and no heat.
And instead of pasting snapshots in an album like other tourists, they surreptitiously made a 13-minute video, "One Night in Nampho,’’ which won an award for best short documentary at the Action on Film International Film Festival in Monrovia, Calif.
Mixing archival footage with film from their trip, it is a spooky, surreal and sometimes sad chronicle of life in a self-delusional dictatorship.
Viewers might wonder why the two former Boston University students would voluntarily spend time in a country the U.S State Department describes as a "highly militaristic communist state’’ in which "visitors are subject to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.’’
Ladies, what’s wrong with Club Med in the Virgin Islands?
"I had my fill of those Caribbean kind of vacations,’’ explained Taher, an epidemiologist at the Boston Public Health Commission. "My parents have always encouraged me to be curious.’’
Frantzis said she and Taher decided to travel "off the beaten path’’ after attending a friend’s wedding in Haiti in 2010 and sharing a trip together to Cuba, which also doesn’t have diplomatic relations with the U.S.
"It was interesting because there were so many issues,’’ said Frantzis who, since finishing her studies at BU, has moved to Los Angeles where she’s a senior auditor at Ernst and Young LLC.
After returning from Cuba, the two friends mulled over ideas for an offbeat trip, including visiting Chernobyl, the site of a nuclear disaster in Russia, or what they called "the –stan tour’’ of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Disney World and Cape Cod weren’t on their list.
In the end, Frantzis and Taher surrendered to the sheer weirdness of visiting the most isolated and xenophobic nation in the world.
So they signed up for a five-day and four-night tour in North Korea. Since no airlines fly there from the U.S., they first flew to Beijing, China, where they had to give a "middleman’’ a down payment for a visa, and then they flew to the capital of Pyongyang on April 12.
Editing the film on her computer with Final Cut Pro software after they arrived home, Frantzis introduced North Korea’s history with archival footage of military parades, monumental Soviet-style statues and huge crowds in drab uniforms saluting Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il, the father and son dictators who ruled with iron fists from 1948 to 2011.
Page 2 of 2 - Featuring Frantzis’ deadpan narration, "One Night…’’ captures a unsettling sense of a country self-entombed in a political time warp where everything resembles a 1950s Soviet-era newsreel.
Some North Korean efforts to promote a veneer of military superiority come off as laughable. But a short segment in an orphanage of children robotically performing for the camera like, in Taher’s words, "well-trained animals’’ appears disturbing.
At one point, the tour was taken to the International Friendship Museum and shown piles of gifts supposedly given to the Great Leader from admiring foreigners, including a Bible from Billy Graham, a basketball from Michael Jordan and an ashtray from Jimmy Carter.
As a travelogue, North Korea comes across as the tourist destination from hell. Settling into their "five-star hotel," Frantzis and Taher reveal barely functioning plumbing, radios that get one station and rooms so cold their breath is visible.
But "One Night…’’ really transports viewers through the looking glass into North Korea’s soul-suffocating drabness during scenes involving the two government "minders,’’ "Mr. Bak and Mr. Shiny Suit,’’ who daily accompanied the group to ensure they didn’t stray beyond their scripted tour.
When the group holds a party in their hotel in Nampho on what would have been Kil Il-sung’s 100th birthday, Mr. Bak and Mr. Shiny Suit drink and dance with tour members with an odd mix of reserve and abandon.
In different ways, the younger Bak and older Shiny Suit resemble government functionaries totally locked into the roles they are required to play with foreign visitors, down to their stock assurances of North Korean prosperity and their leaders’ infallibility.
But their humanity creeps through and viewers can’t help but wonder how these government lackeys feel about a job that must afford certain benefits yet exposes them to the sarcasm, skepticism and sympathy of the foreigners they deal with.
Frantzis, who considers filmmaking and photography her "main passion’’ outside of work, attributed their festival prize to their ability to evoke the "mixed bag of serious, surreal and creepy’’ things they witnessed in North Korea.
They have entered "One Night in Nampho’’ in the Boston International Film Festival and Sundance International Film Festival but won’t know the results until winter.
Taher expressed sympathy for the tour guides who benefited from their positions yet were forced to act out charades of happiness and prosperity.
"I think they tried very hard to give the impression they’re well off and satisfied. But you could see through the cracks,’’ she said. "I hope viewers get the impression that, though it’s a repressive regime, people are still people who can have a good time, even if it doesn’t seem that way to our eyes.’’