SEOUL (Reuters) - Communist North Korea rolled out its version of the red carpet this week when the reclusive state opened its biannual international film festival, allowing its masses to watch forbidden foreign films.
Movies are near to the heart of leader Kim Jong-il, a fan of Daffy Duck, Steven Spielberg and Elizabeth Taylor, who is thought to have a library of about 20,000 films that includes all of the James Bond movies, intelligence sources have said.
Kim, who is suspected of suffering a stroke in recent weeks, usually does not attend the event. But his state's propaganda machine typically runs a news item at the time of the festival praising him a "genius in cinematic art."
In state media reports late on Wednesday monitored in Seoul, the North said the festival "was opened with due ceremony," which included an all-women marching band. Instead of stars in designer clothes, it brought ageing cadres in dark suits to the stage.
In recent years, the North has screened about 70 films from about 30 countries at the festival, that include its own movies as well as films from Europe, the United States and the Asia-Pacific region.
North Koreans can normally be thrown in jail for watching unauthorized foreign movies.
But during the 10-day festival, they have seen films such as "Bend it Like Beckham" and "Whale Rider," which is a far cry from the home-grown product that is heavily steeped in its state's communist ideology.
Analysts said Kim was the driving force behind the film festival, which first opened in 1987 as the North Korean version of Cannes, minus the glamour, money and star power.
The event, once called "The Film Festival of Non-Aligned and other Developing Countries," used to show obscure films from far-flung corners of the world.
In recent editions, it has grown more international, and added TV documentaries as well as movies that play on the global film festival circuit. North Korea stages parties for the festival but participants say the events lack any luster.
The North gives out awards at the festival with top honors in 2006 going to the German film "Napola," also called "Before the Fall," which tells of a youth who attends an elite Nazi school who then rebels against Hitler's state.
Kim, who did not attend the opening, was obsessed with film production in his younger days. He is suspected of kidnapping one of South Korea's top directors and actresses in 1978 and taking them to the North where he forced them into make movies.
Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun; Editing by Nick Macfie