How Do You Get Inside The Most Isolated Nation On Earth?
In 2012, thanks to the charming Nick Bonner (filmmaker, tour operator, art collector, and walking encyclopedia of all things North Korea), my cinematographer Nicola Daley and I found ourselves on the tarmac of Beijing airport, gazing up at an ageing Russian Illyusha.
This was Air Koryo’s twice-weekly 11am shuttle to Pyongyang. It had taken us two years to get on it.
Newsflash: you can go in to North Korea as a tourist, but it’s expensive and tightly controlled. You’re allowed to take in one stills camera, but can only point it at certain things. To make AIM HIGH!, my producer Lizzette Atkins and I needed something no-one had ever got before: an access-all-areas shoot, with loads of professional camera gear, and the freedom to point it, uninterrupted, at the filmmakers and film studios of North Korea’s powerful, but until-now completely hidden Cinema Industry.
When I’d first called Nick Bonner with my idea, he laughed and politely told me to join the queue. Nick has flown tourists in and out of North Korea for over fifteen years, via his Beijing-based company Koryo Tours. He’s also produced three excellent docs along the way: The Game of Their Lives (about North Korea’s 1966 World Cup Soccer team), A State of Mind (about a school-girl gymnast training for Pyongyang’s mass games); and Crossing the Line (about North Korea’s number one movie villain, Joe Dresnok: a US marine who defected during the war and has played evil Yankee bastards ever since).
Last year, Nick produced the first ever North-Korean/Belgian co-pro feature, Comrade Kim Goes Flying – a feel-good comedy shot and acted by North Koreans, about a perky factory worker who dreams of becoming a trapeze artist – and reaches for the stars.
Nick is perhaps the only western filmmaker to have earned the complete trust of the Regime. As a result, he gets requests from hungry doc makers like me every day, begging him to help secure an elusive North Korean media visa. But recent critical films like Red Chapel and Camp 14, along with ‘undercover-in-the-DPRK’ TV exposes shot on hidden cameras by journalists pretending to be tourists, have made the North Koreans understandably nervous about who they let in. So when I cold-called Nick, telling him vaguely that I wanted to travel around Pyongyang to make a film about Cinema, he graciously wished me luck, and hung up.
I spent the next eighteen months trying to secure a visa via every channel I could think of: the North Korean Embassy in Jakarta; a Tour Guide who’d taken a producer friend of mine in a few years back; the Australian Ambassador in Seoul; and an interesting character I met online who presented as a ‘foreign media officer’ for North Korea. He suggested I deposit 70,000 Euros in his account, then told me he couldn’t guarantee I’d meet any North Korean filmmakers. If I was lucky, I might get a trip to the Pyongyang Film Studios, where I could film some movie posters. It wasn’t looking good.
I was getting desperate enough to deposit the 70,000 Euros anyway. The Solrun Hoaas Foundation, set up in honour of legendary documentary maker Solrun Hoaas to help Australian women develop films about East Asia, had kindly given me some money. There seemed no other way to get in. But my producer Lizzette Atkins wisely suggested I try Nick Bonner one last time.
So I did what most filmmakers with a unique idea thing very carefully about doing: I told Nick the whole story. My film wasn’t just about North Korean cinema, I said – I also wanted to make a short drama, in their style – and I wanted advice from North Korea’s best filmmakers to do it. “Why didn’t you tell me in the first place”, said Nick. The idea appealed, he explained, because I didn’t want to poke fun at the North Koreans for the entertainment of ‘superior’ Westerners, like so many others. I wanted to set up a genuine creative collaboration. I didn’t just want to take: I wanted to give back.
Anna Broinowski makes sure there’s no ‘offensive literature’ or weapons in her suitcase.
From that point on, things moved quickly. One minute, I was dropping off my daughter at her Sydney school and telling the Mums that I was going to the place they knew of as ‘Bad’ Korea: that mysterious land on the other side of ‘Good’ Korea.
The next minute, Lizzette and I were filling out the North Korean customs form for our first recce to Pyongyang, declaring we were carrying no ‘offensive foreign literature’ (anything from Orwell’s 1984 to Who Magazine), no ‘technology with GPS device’ (anything North Korea’s enemies can track by satellite), and ‘no weapons or drugs of any kind’. I was safe here – my only drugs were three gift cartons of Duty Free Mild Seven cigarettes, and Imodium tablets, to ward off Pyongyang belly.
I’m glad I took both.