IN 1987 Kim Jong Il published his manifesto on films, “The Cinema and Directing”. Kim—who ruled North Korea from 1994 to 2011 and was a film fanatic famous for his love of Hollywood—declared that a director’s ultimate duty was to “aim high in creation”
That might be so. But in North Korea reaching for the stars, so to speak, entails holding the masses down. Films made in the Hermit Kingdom must do three things: re-educate the people, lionise the leaders and promote the political ideology of Juche or “self-reliance”. Plotlines prioritise sacrifice and dedication to the state over individual desire.
Kim’s manifesto set out a list of rules directors must follow. “The best use should be made of music,” reads one. Actors must be “fit socialist warriors in mind and body”, another. In “Aim High in Creation!”, which was released last year, one film-maker has followed his instructions to the letter. But, surprisingly, she is not North Korean.
Anna Broinowski, an Australian director best known for her investigative documentary “Forbidden Lie$”, was given the manifesto as a joke birthday present. By the second page, she says she was hooked.
Ms Broinowski wanted to use the power of film to inspire protest against a coal-seam gas company that had been given permission to drill in a park just metres from her Sydney home in 2010. She hit upon the idea of making an anti-fracking film in the socialist-propaganda style, using Kim’s directives.
To this end Ms Broinowski travelled to North Korea twice in 2012, gaining unprecedented access to the film industry. She met actors, received tuition from directors and even performed in a North Korean film set on the USS Pueblo, a captured American spy ship.
What began as a fictional drama soon morphed into a look at North Korea through its film. “Aim High in Creation!” is part-documentary, part-DIY instruction manual on how to make propaganda, and part anti-fracking film. Large chunks are shot in the most secretive state in the world.
North Korea’s film industry peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was cranking out around 40 movies a year. In the late 1970s, Shin Sang-ok, a well-loved South Korean director, was kidnapped, apparently on Kim’s orders. After a spell in prison he collaborated and helped raise the standard of film-making in North Korea, until his escape in 1987. But what Ms Broinowski witnessed was far less vibrant. “Aim High in Creation!” switches between pathos and comedy. She recalls meeting one director, who got drunk with her and admitted: “Things are different for us now.” Her ambition, she says speaking in Sydney, is to portray North Korean film-makers as human beings rather than masters of myth enslaved to the state.
Challenges abounded. Films in North Korea are still shot on celluloid with post-recorded sound. Ms Broinowski’s soundman dropped out shortly before arriving in the country, so at the last minute she had to train a local from scratch to hold a boom microphone. Censorship was another issue. Like all foreign visitors Ms Broinowski and her producer, Lizzette Atkins, could only travel with a chaperone. Strict rules governed what could or could not be filmed. Most importantly any images or statues depicting Kim or his father, Kim Il Sung—of which there are many in Pyongyang—had to be fully framed on camera. No part of their body was to be cut off.
“Aim High In Creation!” is a sympathetic portrait of film-makers striving for perfection in a less than perfect regime. Ms Broinowski has had her detractors. An article published in the Australia’s Sunday Telegraph in April suggested that she was an apologist for the North Korean regime. But the director rejects such criticisms.
In a rare move, “Aim High in Creation!” is being screened this week in Seoul at the International Women’s Film Festival. Ms Broinowski hopes that her movie, one of a handful to be filmed inside North Korea and then shown in South Korean cinemas, will give some insight into the hermit state. After all, if the regime ever cracks, she says, it will be through the introduction of “knowledge, not bombs”.
Photograph: Production still from Aim High in Creation!