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Filmmaker Joe Smith shares untold stories of North Korea for viral 'Economist' documentary

Born and raised in London, England, Joseph Smith has always loved documentaries. With a vast knowledge in economics and politics, he knew that he would only ever truly be happy if he followed his dreams to become a filmmaker, using his talents to educate the world. He pushes the boundaries of storytelling, finding innovative ways to tell a story, not forgetting that journalism is the key to making a truly outstanding documentary.

“There is nothing better than telling someone’s story. I have been lucky enough to work with some truly inspirational people and as a professional Producer and Director I get to make films about these extraordinary individuals and tell the world,” said Smith.

Now, Smith is a filmmaker for the Economist, creating impactful documentaries for the publications website that highlight stories from across the globe. He previously worked for the prolific British stations Channel 4, BBC 3 as well as the Emmy-nominated Blakeway Productions. He aims to make short, sharp, punchy stories with a strong human interest that look at some of the biggest issues facing the world today, and he endeavours to make the visuals as strong as the story. It is this perspective that has led Smith to win two prestigious awards, Launch of the Year and Video Project of the Year at the British Media Awards 2016, and why he has earned the reputation as a leader in his industry in both England and abroad.

“I love the creative element of storytelling that comes with making films. There is nothing better than seeing your vision become a reality and it’s even better when a film gets a good response. I have been lucky enough to make films that get millions of views around the world,” he said.

Since moving to the Economist, Smith has helped revolutionize the video content for the publication. They had spent years trying to establish material that would be in line with the journalistic rigour and profile of the Economist’s print output, and Smith’s films do just that. He has filmed all over the world and shot some of the seminal moments in history; he was even in Saudi Arabia on the first day women were allowed to drive for “Women and the Saudi Revolution”. The films he produces for Economist Films average 35 million views each month across their 15 social platforms, including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Apple TV and Amazon Fire.

Last year, one of Smith’s Economist films debuted and ended up being one of the most watched to date. “Korea’s Secret War” tells the story of Kang Chol-hwan, a North Korean defector from North Korea. He is founder and president of the North Korea Strategy Centre. Since its inception, North Korea Strategy Centre has worked with over 150 North Korean defectors and sent over 40,000 DVDs, 400 radio sets, and 4,000 USBs into North Korea. This film is the best performing film for Economist Filmsand has received over 2.4 million views across the social media platforms.

“Very few people know about North Korea. I love making films that are a window into an unknown world and this film certainly had this element to it. North Korea is a country that is fundamental to the global world order. Their nuclear capabilities and their boisterous leader mean that they have been forced to the top of the news agenda and I was very keen to make sure we covered the country in some way. This film was a micro story looking at the macro. One man’s battle against a country where he was born, made a political prisoner as a child and then escaped,” said Smith.

Smith came up with the idea for the film as he had been looking at making a documentary on North Korea for some time, knowing that it is a topical world issue at the moment and audiences would be interested in learning more. However, he knew this would be challenging, as very few films had been made about North Korea that gave a true insight into what life is like inside the country. When he heard of a dissident who was sending leaflets into North Korea on hot air balloons, he instantly thought of a great visual story as he could imagine the opening scene of the film, a wave of hot air balloons filling the sky. From there, his film was born.

After the initial phone call, Smith knew that there was an even better story that had not been told yet. The same NGO was helping another organization disseminate information into the secretive state by USB. What was really interesting about this story, according to Smith, was that the content of the USBs included popular American television shows like Desperate Housewivesand Friends. This was the twist he had been looking for and he knew that this would make an amazing film.

“I wanted to make a film that was slightly counter intuitive. Everyone thinks of North Koreans as completely oppressed robots who just do what they are told, or face being sent to prison camps and to some extent that is true, but you can never underestimate the power of the human spirit and I thought there may be an interesting way to tell a story about how people within the country were trying to fight back against the regime,” said Smith.

Smith took the film from conception to completion. This included negotiating access to exclusive, never been seen before footage secretly filmed inside North Korea. He organized all of the filming and the contributors including high profile North Korean dissident Kang Chol-hwan. The greatest challenge came from figuring out how to tell a story about North Korea without actually going to the country, where no foreign journalists were allowed at the time. He got in touch with the man in Seoul who was the head of the organization and asked him if in addition to sending footage in to the country, had he ever looked to get footage out and he said that he had some undercover footage that was exclusive and never seen before. They filmed the bulk of the story in Seoul and then punctuated the film with the undercover footage, a technique Smith was well versed in after successfully executing it in the past.

“I loved the fact we were able to bring a new perspective and new angle to such an important international story. The fact we were able to smuggle footage out of North Korea elevated the film and it was incredibly well received by the viewers,” said Smith. “At the EconomistI am lucky enough to work on some of the biggest stories in the world and with this piece about North Korea we were ahead of the curve. This film came out quite a long time before the nuclear threat and subsequent meeting with President Trump, so it has had a long shelf life too.”

Despite all of the film’s success, one of the best things that came out of “Korea’s Secret War” for Smith was the lasting relationship he made with the Human Rights Foundation. This was the original NGO that he contacted about the film and since that time he has gone on to make around 15 different films with them across the world. He has been invited to attend their annual human rights conference in Oslo (the Oslo Freedom Forum) twice as well as their spinoff event in New York. For a documentary filmmaker, this is a dream come true.

Check out Smith’s captivating work on “Korea’s Secret War” here.

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