Day 6

Hockey Night in Pyongyang: Meet the Canadian behind a new film about North Korea's national men's hockey team

With Closing The Gap, Nigel Edwards and his crew became the first foreign filmmakers allowed access to any of North Korea's national sports teams.

Closing the Gap: Hockey in North Korea will premiere at the Whistler Film Festival

Players from North Korea's national men's hockey team sit in a change room at the country's main ice rink. (Matt Reichel)

North Korea's national men's hockey team plays with outdated equipment and old-fashioned techniques copied from Soviet-era playbooks.

Yet that hasn't stopped them from competing internationally. Of 81 member countries, North Korea currently ranks 41st in the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).

Vancouver-based director Nigel Edwards set out to learn just what's behind the love of hockey in the closed-off country in his new film, Closing the Gap.

"North Korea is a black hole of queries," he told Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "You go in there with questions, and you're hoping to get answers, and you come out with even more questions."

Hockey first arrived in North Korea during the late '40s, largely via Soviet and Chinese influence. Currently, the country is home to 11 professional hockey clubs, including six men's teams and five women's teams.

Players watch as the national men's hockey team coach runs down a play for the team. (Matt Reichel)

According to the team behind the film, Closing the Gap is the first of its kind, "allowing foreign filmmakers unprecedented access to any sports club." It will premiere next month at the Whistler Film Festival.

The film follows the national team, over several months and trips to the country, from Pyongyang to Auckland, New Zealand, as they prepare for the 2017 IIHF Championships. The team is officially registered with the IIHF as DPR Korea and joined the federation in 1963.

"My biggest hope for this film is ultimately, you know, to share a little bit of humanity with the rest of the world … really to sort of frame an individual amongst a regime and society that's not conducive to individuality, through hockey," Edwards said.

Glimpse into players' personal lives

North Koreans are recruited at a young age to begin training for the national team, particularly in the country's three northernmost provinces.

The adult players spoke about their love for the game, which was passed down from older generations, in interviews with touching, emotional moments.

"In North Korea, there is an ordinary ice hockey player," An Chol Hyok, a 29-year-old player, told the filmmakers about how he wants international viewers to see him.

Players visit the Mansu Hill Grand Monument and lay flowers beneath statues of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. (Matt Reichel)

In one scene, as the entire team gathers at a train station to begin their journey to New Zealand via China, the players are showered by their families with hugs and kisses – and plenty of gifts.

"Every family member shows up in droves with boxes of apples and kimchi and, you know, U.S. dollars to kind of give them so they can buy beers," Edwards said.

For players in the isolated country, leaving for the IIHF championship represents an important moment.

"It's a big deal for them to be able to leave country."

The moment also shed unique light on the players' personal lives, given the limited access Edwards and his fellow filmmakers were afforded.

"Within this film, we have full reign within the ice rink and outside the ice rink," he explained. "We're not able to get into their homes."

Young hockey players join in practice at Pyongyang's Ice Arena. (Matt Reichel)

Ethical quandaries while filming

Amid the heartwarming scenes, however, is the clear influence of the country's ruling Worker's Party led by Kim Jong-un.

Throughout the film, players credit the party for their "skills" and "discipline," and express a desire to win gold out of respect for Kim, their "Supreme Leader."

Despite what they call "unprecedented" access, Edwards acknowledges that he had to make some ethical choices during the filming.

One scene, not included in the film, saw many of the players running around their New Zealand hotel rooms shirtless while drinking beer, Edwards recalled. The team's coach had left the team on their own after taking a teammate to hospital with an injury.

"If I did it outside the approval of the top management, it could put them in jeopardy," said Edwards explaining why he chose not to film the moment.

"If you did something without the approval of the coach or the team or the upper staff, they would come back and say, you know, 'What the hell?'"

Edwards says that filming proved a challenge in many ways. While Edwards and his team were heavily chaperoned — though never censored, according to the film's intro — inside North Korea, the players faced the same treatment while travelling outside their home country.

In an effort to get around that, building trust with their film's stars was key.

"They know whether your heart is true or not," Edwards said.

"So for them, seeing us coming back multiple times really lent itself to the trust that we have with these players."