We talk to the Australian director who managed to do the unthinkable: make a North Korean propaganda film from the inside.
31 Mar 2014 - 10:54 AM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:27 AM

“In capitalist society the director is shackled by the reactionary government policy of commercialising the cinema and by the capitalist money so that he is a mere worker who obeys the rule of the filmmaking industrialists whether he likes it or not. On the other hand, in a socialist society he is an independent and creative artist who is responsible to the people and the party for the cinema” – from The Cinema and Directing by Kim Jong-il.

Those words, penned in 1987 by the late Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in one of his many books on various artistic disciplines, are readily quoted by Anna Broinowski. The Australian documentary filmmaker, who made her name with 2007’s masterful Forbidden Lie$, has found fascination and inspiration with the little known but vast North Korean film industry, one she gained unparalleled access to for her engaging new feature, Aim High in Creation! [sic]

The film is at once a humorous exploration of making a propaganda film, as Broinowski travels to North Korea to be schooled by the masters after she learns a proposal is in place to put a coal seam gas drilling site just 500 metres from her suburban Sydney home, a differing look inside a country that is defined in narrow but sadly necessary parameters, and a reminder that artistic belief transcends national borders and dogmatic ideology.

Broinowski, accompanied by producer Lizzette Atkins and then cinematographer Nicola Daley, traveled to Pyongyang in July and September of 2012, at a time when Kim Jong-il’s heir, Kim Jong-un, was staging festivals and first hosting former American basketball star Dennis Rodman – i.e. before the stories of his uncle being purged and murdered and his subordinates being executed by anti-aircraft gun fire reminded the world that North Korea was not thawing and that it remained a brutal totalitarian state.

Broinowski gained rare access to the North Korean film industry, and the country itself, during a small window of moderation, but what she learnt for Aim High in Creation! has to be balanced by the realities of the regime’s rule lest she appear to be an apologist or deliberately naïve. It’s a balancing act she’s become adept at.

“We’re not for a second denying the atrocious conditions and abuses. But what we discovered when we were given access to the North Korean film industry was a brief glimpse into what life is like for the people not in the gulags,” explains Broinowski. “What drove me from the beginning was that while North Korea has a population of 24 million people and while the human rights abuses are in the news constantly for good reason, there are people there who are like us. What’s life like for them?”

“According to the U.N., a third of North Korea’s population is suffering from undernourishment, but that leaves two thirds of the population we don’t hear about,” she adds. “The North Koreans we encountered were hands down some of the warmest and friendliest people I’ve ever met. It was news to me that you could have fun with North Koreans. The minute I landed I looked around expecting to see brainwashed automatons, and in fact Pyongyang is bizarrely beautiful.”

Broinowski’s aim was to make a deliberately dreadful propaganda film in the North Korean style within her documentary, mocking their techniques with the story of determined Sydneysiders halting the capitalist drilling machine. But once she was welcomed by the North Korean filmmaking community, who were genuinely appalled when they learnt about the coal seam gas drilling proposal (which was subsequently knocked back), she took the task seriously.

“Once they gave us that kind of commitment I couldn’t make that kind of piss-take,” she admits. “My film had to work on their terms and be funny – it wouldn’t stand on its own legs in the West, but they love it in Pyongyang.”

Kim Jong-il was madly passionate about the cinema. He watched Hollywood films – especially anything with Elizabeth Taylor in it – and when he took control of the North Korean film industry in 1964 he turned it from a dour Soviet-style machine into a maker of propaganda movies that flourished in the guise of romantic comedies, action adventures, and monster movies. He was a mogul, albeit one who cemented his status by deifying his father, and a reminder that movies and propaganda have long been intertwined.

“All dictators have, to some degree, embraced the power of cinema as a useful tool to keep their citizens in check. Stalin adored films, Goebbels ran a massive propaganda industry, and it all goes back to Lenin,” notes Broinowski. “He said, ‘cinema for us is the most powerful of all arts’. It’s an affirmation of cinema’s power to impact how people think and feel. North Korean filmmakers were regarded more highly than even soldiers by the regime because they created films that kept people in thrall to the socialist paradise in which they were supposedly living.”

Broinowski had to sweat over the access, survive the many toasts made with soju, the powerful Korean version of vodka, and excuse herself from an informal casting as an “evil Yankee” in a thriller being shot by leading North Korean filmmaker Ri Kwan Am. As with Forbidden Lie$, which methodically stripped bare the many lies of fake memoir writer Norma Khouri, it was a demanding production, but the director believes that’s a necessity.

“Feature docs are ambitious subjects because you need to have a story that will persuade people to stay in a seat for 90-plus minutes. I’ve been attracted to big complex stories that are international, because that’s the other dilemma Australian documentarians have: we’re not on a level playing field anymore,” declares Broinowski. “There isn’t an instant market for a well-shot, parochial issue Australian documentary. For our films to fly we might as well make them overseas because we’re not given special treatment at home. So I’m looking for stories that will travel and are epic.”

Aim High in Creation! opened Thursday 27 March at Cinema Nova, Carlton. Anna Broinowski’s book on her experiences in North Korea, Drinking the Kool-Aid, will be published later this year.