NEW YORK >> The documentary crew that accompanied Dennis Rodman to North Korea over the winter says it had no idea it would meet the reclusive country’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, until he showed up at a basketball game it was filming.
The media company VICE arranged the trip and invited Rodman after its first choice, Michael Jordan, expressed no interest. A 30-minute documentary on the unexpected piece of basketball diplomacy will air on June 14 on HBO as the final episode of VICE’s first season, and was previewed for some reporters on Wednesday.
The North Korean leader loves basketball so much that he overlooked the government’s antipathy for VICE founder Shane Smith, who had made two critical documentaries on North Korea, and invited the crew in. Smith wasn’t allowed back but VICE’s Ryan Duffy accompanied Rodman and three members of the Harlem Globetrotters traveling basketball troupe.
“We just wanted to make a good documentary,” Smith said in an interview. “We didn’t do it as a stunt.”
Duffy quickly learned his place: One of the first things one of his “tour guides” told him was, “I know who you are. I don’t like you and I don’t like your company,” he said Wednesday. The crew was told when it could turn on its cameras and when they had to be off, and feared landing in a North Korean prison if it didn’t comply, he said.
The North Koreans did not go through the footage shot by the crew, however. Some 36 hours of film was cut down into the half-hour HBO show, and some may surface later as online extras.
The crew went through an elaborate week-long organized tour of North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang, visiting a well-stocked mall with no other customers and the country’s version of Sea World. At one point, it was shown a classroom with students sitting behind computers, but only one person either knew how or was allowed to use one of the machines. One student sat before Google’s home page and never searched for anything, just moving the cursor back and forth randomly.
The tour was taken in the hopes of catching one or two glimpses of the real North Korean people, which the group finally achieved toward the end when its minders let the bus stop at a park and the Globetrotters played around with some of the kids, helping them learn to spin a basketball on their finger.
Duffy said the group was surprised when Kim arrived to watch what was essentially a pickup basketball game with the Globetrotters and some members of a North Korean youth team. Rodman didn’t play; he sat in the stands watching with Kim. After the game, the VICE crew and players were rushed across Pyongyang unexpectedly for a dinner with Kim and other members of the North Korean government.
Although Rodman was key to securing the visit and played the most prominent role of any of the visiting Americans, he’s only a bit player in VICE’s documentary. Smith said Rodman declined to be interviewed about the trip by VICE afterward.
The American group brought in some basketballs and basketball equipment to distribute to young North Koreans, but wasn’t asked for anything else by its hosts, Smith said. VICE hasn’t spoken to anyone in the Obama administration about the trip, he said. During the trip, the administration had refrained from commenting about it.
HBO and VICE have not agreed to continue its series of news documentaries beyond this season, but the arrangement is likely. HBO said the show gets solid ratings, while VICE said the network gives VICE valuable exposure beyond the young audience that traditionally follows its product.
Smith said he’s open to heading back to North Korea at some point in the future.
Next time, VICE may take Scottie Pippen.