Determined to stop a new gas mine from being established near her Sydney home, director Anna Broinowski (Forbidden Lie$) goes to North Korea to learn how to make a propaganda film. She enlists Pyongyang’s top directors, composers and movie stars to teach her the techniques implemented by the late Kim Jong Il.

Back in Sydney, Anna’s cast apply the North Koreans’ instructions to produce a didactic socialist melodrama, in which “heroic workers” rise up to defeat the “evil, gas-fracking miners.”

3.5

It is well, well-established that humour has the power to combat oppression. What you probably know about Aim High In Creation! [sic] is that it is a documentary about North Korea. Well, it is and it isn’t. The oppression that kickstarted this film, didn’t begin in Pyongyang or anywhere near the 38th parallel that separates the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea’s official name) from the capitalist South Korea. Instead, the instigating factor for this documentary is an alleged collusion between mining and energy companies and NSW government(s) to introduce Coal Seam Gas drilling aka ‘fracking’ into suburban Sydney.

Dedicated documentarian (Forbidden Lie$), and asiaphile (trivia: her middle name is Mariko), Anna Broinowski decided to fight fire with what she calls “cinematic kryptonite” by applying six rules from the film text The Cinema and Directing written by North Korea’s deceased leader, Kim Jong Il ’with a view to applying his propaganda skills to her own cause’.

Broinowski bravely goes into the belly of the beast, to get first-hand training from North Korea’s finest film practitioners. With the blessing of the North Korean government (and nothing happens without its blessing), she acquires a film directing mentor in Pak Jong Ju, an energetic grey-haired man who has directed over 70 films. From his unprecedented tutelage, Broinowski gets a wealth of experience, which for the uninitiated will be gob-smackingly surreal.

Though no DPRK neophyte, the Australian director, does initially fall into some standard traps, and repeats some generalisations about North Korea (one such as the “no advertising” statement is actually rectified on the Aim High In Creation! website). It’s surprising why Westerners bother with manufacturing anti-North Korean propaganda (take this week’s silly story about all North Korean men having to get the same haircut as Kim Jong un for example), given that the reality is already bizarre enough.

After her first trip to North Korea, Broinowski introduces her Australian actors to the North Koreans via digital footage, and then implements Kim Jong Il’s film techniques to make a short and hopefully powerful anti-coal seam gas short fiction film. Called The Gardener, her proposed short film is about a rural, working class woman who inspires her countrymen to rise up and fight the corporate miners. For much of the documentary, the director’s tongue is planted very firmly in her cheek. Though, Broinowski clearly has a knowledge of North Korean film, her affection for it, is a tad derisive. Going for the joke rather than the juche (North Korean philosophy of self-reliance), her rehearsals look inept when juxtaposed against excerpts from North Korean films like Sea Of Blood and Schoolgirl’s Diary.

The first sign that there may be something more on offer is the initial response to Broinowski’s NK mentors by Australian actor Matt Zeremes: “They are all so sincere”. (In contrast, actor Elliott Weston looks like he’s experiencing culture shock.) For much of the documentary, Aim High In Creation! has an ‘ends justifies the means’ flavour, that justifies poking fun at North Koreans, playing up to them, treating them as dupes. But as the film progresses, the afore-observed sincerity begins to win out, and the humour of the premise burns out in a way that the mobilised methane of coal seam gas never will.

By the time, the audience sees the finished short, The Gardener, it pales beside all the North Korean propaganda that we have been pushed to be amused by. It’s not just about budget, for surely the Western argument would be that the Australian actors because they live in democracy – would have greater access to their emotions, rather than less. Making allowances for cultural difference, the North Koreans leave the Australians in the shade when it comes to expressing emotion.

But as impassioned as the North Korean films and their filmmakers are, the most heart-rending scene offered by Broinowski’s camera is the moment when she takes actress Susan Prior to meet Dalby farmer, Brian Monk. Monk speaks of his suspicions about the health risks of fracking (particularly on his grandchildren) and the obfuscations of British Gas and Origin Energy. His subsequent emotional breaking down, is enough to give anyone pause. It’s not proof of course, but the sight of this stoic, and no doubt practical, man of the land in tears, stops the light-heartedness dead in its tracks and makes Bronowski’s short film finale look anti-climactic and twee. As a film, Aim High In Creation! never successfully pairs its twin subjects, but where it does triumph is by clarifying that that there is more to North Korea and Coal Seam Gas than what we are told by our “trusted” information sources.

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In Cinemas 27 March 2014,

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