Filmmakers Are Family
The meta-focus of AIM HIGH! was always going to be Propaganda – both good and bad, both sophisticated (as seen in the corporate West) and didactic (as seen in North Korea).
The dramatic story is about one fanatical director and five brave actors who decide Kim Jong Il’s propaganda techniques are powerful enough to stop a Sydney gas mine. Will they or won’t they stop the mine? was the hook around which the film was originally structured.
But once I went to North Korea and saw the generosity, candour and passion with which Kim Jong Il’s top filmmakers embraced our environmental cause, I realised the main message in AIM HIGH! had to be that no matter where you live, and no matter what ideology you work under, Filmmakers are Family.
North Korean filmmakers watch rushes at the April 25 Military film Studio: Pyongyang
The North Korean sequences in AIM HIGH! focus on filmmaking, and only touch obliquely on the Regime. I did this deliberately, because I believe it’s time a new story about North Korea was told – a story that explores, through the prism of cinema, the common humanity of the twenty three million North Koreans not living in the country’s already well-documented Gulags.
Thanks to our approach, Producer Lizzette Atkins and I were able to secure an access to the North Korean Film Industry that no-one has ever had before.
The filmmakers and people we met, were resilient, funny, smart and tough. They also had the endearing naivety of a people untouched by the rampant materialism that has taken over the West since North Korea was shut off in 1953. With no internet, social media, I-phones, gaming or access to foreign TV or news of any kind, they seem locked in a more innocent mindset. This is particularly the case when it comes to having fun: picnics, story telling, roller-skating, soccer, strolling in parks, fun fairs, group singing, chess, and – of course – going to the Cinema – are the top forms of entertainment.
Anna Broinowski and Producer Lizzette Atkins with (L to R) Director Pak Jong Ju, Actor Yurim, Director Ri Kwan Am, Designer Mr Doh and DOP Mr Beh: Pyongyang Film Studios
It’s important to note that the North Koreans living in Pyongyang are comparatively lucky – life outside the capital is far less pleasant. But still – it was news to me that you can actually have fun, and lots of it, in North Korea. In fact, DOP Nicola Daley and I often ended our shooting days eating noodles and kimchi with our filmmaking colleagues, singing songs, cracking jokes, and doused to the eyeballs in Shoju. This is North Korea’s take on vodka. At 5.1 standard drinks, it’s lethal.
Anna Broinowski and Director Pak Jong Ju at a Pyongyang Film Studio picnic.
AIM HIGH! blends the three different worlds of our shoot. The first two worlds are Australia and North Korea. Using my laptop as a default Skype device (North Koreans do not have outside email or phone access), I link these worlds by playing the North Korean filmmakers my Actors’ questions, and vice versa. This ignites a collaboration between the Australian cast and their North Korean instructors.
The filmmakers we meet (directors Ri Kwan Am and Pak Jong Ju, actress Yun Su Gyong, composer Pae Young Sam, DOP O Tae Yong and others) are all charming, intelligent people who I (and I hope, the audience) cannot help but like. I bonded with Pak Jong Ju in particular. He took a fatherly concern in me, advising me to stay healthy, because “film directing is like climbing a mountain.”
Veteran North Korean Director Pak Jong Ju: Pyongyang Film Studios
I knew Pak Jong Ju was a wonderful man from the way he rehearsed his actors in a scene for AIM HIGH! - but I didn’t realise how candid and funny the other North Korean filmmakers had been until we returned to Australia, and had the rushes translated.
When we saw how director Ri Kwan Am dissed my acting ability (correctly) on the set of his movie about captured US spy ship The Pueblo, how the Soldier at the DMZ pleaded so graciously for greater understanding of his country, and how the Pyongyang Film Studio filmmakers told us, with huge smiles on their faces, not to “come and start another war”, we knew we had some great lost in translation moments.
Anna with the actors, writers, directors, Dops and designers of the Pyongyang Film Studios.
We focused on the humour of these moments to smash clichés about North Korea in unexpected ways, and to surprise and unite the audience, regardless of their ideological beliefs.
The third world of AIM HIGH! fuses Australia and North Korea in the form of a Kim Jong Il-style propaganda short, made by an Aussie cast and crew, which celebrates all that is wonderful and bizarre about North Korean cinema. Shot on an Arri Alexa by Geoffrey Simpson (SHINE), ‘The Gardener’ features a rousing song by Kim’s favourite composer Pae Yong Sam, melodramatic (but sincere) acting, politically symbolic design, 70s-style crash zooms, and a didactic plot in which ‘heroic’ workers battle the ‘capitalist swine’ of Coal Seam Gas.
Susan Prior as the noble heroine in ‘The Gardener’
When our associate producer Nick Bonner flew to Pyongyang with a finished copy of The Gardener to play it to the North Korean filmmakers who had instructed us, we were worried. Would they think it was a piss-take of their cinematic style? Would they find it boring? Would they walk out in disgust? Our North Korean colleagues watched the film, then sat there in total silence – which is apparently a very North Korean thing to do.
Our North Korean instructors view ‘The Gardener’: Pyongyang Film Studios
Then, after some prompting from Nick, director Pak Jong Ju, as the respected elder of the group, gave our film the thumbs up. The others made some polite comments, then took Nick off for a BBQ, and some well-earned Shoju.
All up, AIM HIGH! is a piece of entertainment, but I also made it to challenge audiences –both about Coal Seam Gas, and about how North Koreans are normally presented to us in the mainstream news feeds. By using the universal language of Cinema to break down the East/West divide, I passionately hope that AIM HIGH! creates a new understanding: between the until-now hidden North Korean filmmakers I fell in love with, and viewers around the world.
The Socialist Family triumphs in ‘The Gardener’.