Anna Broinowski Aims High – Interview
Australia-based filmmaker Anna Broinowski wanted to make a documentary to stop fracking in Sydney Park. Yes, they were trying to mine Sydney Park. She needed to find a way to get her message to cut through, so she naturally sought advice of the greatest film director of all time… Kim Jong-il?! Check out the film “Aim High in Creation”. It’s a a bizarre combination of an unprecedented trip to North Korea and an environmental activist film. Oliver Heath finds out more:
Hi Anna, Thanks for your time. Your first film Hell Bento!! (1995) was a Tokyo music doco that featured Guitar Wolf and the 126.96.36.199’s years before anyone else (ok me) knew about them. How did it come about? did you have much experience as a filmmaker before making it?
None. Hell Bento!! got funded by accident. My brother Adam and I had lived in Tokyo and were irritated by mainstream perceptions that Japan was just a nation of stressed-out salary men. Adam had a keen interest in music, I in queer politics and taboo, and we sat down in a cafe one day and wrote a one-pager for a film about the Japanese cultural underground, with morphing pieces of sushi for each sub-culture. It was totally un-fundable. But the film gods were on our side: the pitch arrived (by fax) on the desk of the SBS Commissioning Editor just when he’d hung up from a government screen agency saying they had a new initiative for truly out-there ideas. One phone call later, we were sitting on a budget of $250,000. The only condition was we attach an experienced co-director (my oldest friend, Andrew Sully).
How did Hell Bento!! travel? I really want to see it, but I can’t find a copy of it online. Amazon only has link to buy the poster.
It travelled really well – in fact it became a minor cult hit. You can get it on video at AFTRS and Dr Whats and various cult video stores. We should get our act together and dub it to DVD! The film played to 2,000 people at the Sydney Film Festival and won lots of awards around the place – Hawaii, Finland, Sydney, wherever we could afford to enter it. The only place we weren’t allowed to screen was Japan – because the Kyoto Yakuza, who are in it talking openly about drugs, guns and kidnapping, gave us the interview on the grounds that the Japanese would never see it. No contract was signed – but for obvious reasons, we honoured this promise.
It was almost ten years until your next project, what happened in between? were you intending to pursue a filmmaking career at this stage?
Well actually I did make two more films in quick succession – which clearly haven’t made their presence felt online! The second was Sexing the Label for SBS, about the queer/transgendered underground of Sydney (1996) and then Romancing the Chakra for the ABC, about Australia’s burgeoning new age movement (1998). Sexing screened around the world and picked up a few prizes (France’s lesbian scene in particular embraced it); Chakra is the film I’m least happy with and didn’t travel much further than its ABC broadcast.
I’m still shocked you got to film and work with propaganda filmmakers in North Korea. Did the North Korean government review your footage before they would let you out?
Yes, the vetting process was quite intense. I wasn’t sneaking around trying to snatch images of starvation with hidden cameras, because that wasn’t the story I was telling. I was focused on North Korean cinema, which is how I was able to get an access-all-areas media visa inside their film industry in the first place. AIM HIGH is about propaganda – so if the filmmakers wanted to tell me Kim Jong Il invented the 3-camera shoot on Sea of Blood in 1968, that was fine with me. But this didn’t mean I wasn’t controlled. I had an interpreter and three North Korean crew members with me at all times – and I’m pretty sure our gaffer was appointed to spy on us and was fluent in English, even though he pretended he wasn’t. Half way through the shoot I had to sign a contract with Korfilm (the North Korean agency that set up the shoot) promising to let them view all rushes in exchange for “a smooth exit through customs”. I gave them everything on an orange lacie, which they couldn’t view because they didn’t have Quick Time 10. So I gave them that too and the Korfilm computer geek was ecstatic. Once they’d watched the rushes they had three main problems: 1. the NK filmmakers spoke ‘too positively’ about western films; 2. there were too many soldiers in every exterior (unavoidable as the military is everywhere in North Korea) and 3. the radio mic wire sometimes obscured the Dear Leader’s face on the little pin worn by every filmmaker I interviewed.
What kind of restrictions were most surprising? Are there curfews restricting travel once inside?
The rules about how you can film the Leaders’ images blew me away. I already knew you had to film them wide and never crop the image or pan over it (whether you’re filming a 15 meter statue or a picture in the Pyongyang Times) – but I wasn’t prepared for our minders to shut us down when we filmed an exterior of Pyongyang looking back at Kim Il Sung square: the Leader’s portraits were in the background, and not cropped – but we were still not allowed to film them, because they were ‘out of focus’! Also, whenever we drove around the backlot of the Pyongyang Film Studios, which has a huge bronze statue of Kim Jong Il surrounded by film workers in the middle of the square, our driver never drove in front of the statue (even though that was the quickest way to get anywhere). He always made a U-turn and drove behind it. To drive in front would have been a sign of great disrespect. Yes there is a curfew at 7pm in Pyongyang: pedestrians are still allowed to use the roads, but civilian vehicles can not. This is when the army trucks take over. We were late getting back to the hotel a few times, and our North Korean crew used to make me sit in front and smile at the soldiers to distract them. This normally worked. The one time it didn’t, we had one of the most famous bad guy actors in North Korea in the van – and the armed checkpoint guard, who was about to get the driver into all sorts of trouble, stepped back when he saw the actor, totally star struck – and waved us through.
Was there anything that was surprisingly liberal about the place?
The strength of the alcohol – and the liberal amount of it they drink. Big caveat here – the North Korean filmmakers I spent time with are amongst the lucky elite in Pyongyang, and manage to lead relatively normal lives. I only went through the country twice, once to get to the DMZ, and once to a turtle farm – and while the living conditions of the famers we saw there seemed similar to third-world agronomies like Laos or Myanmar, I am no expert about what life is like for North Koreans outside the city. Inside the city, I was astonished by the frequency with which people drink and smoke (ok, the men), and their liberal use of humour – both to put each other down (a lot like Aussies do), and to entertain each other. Three hours after we landed in Pyongyang on our first trip, my producer Lizzette Atkins and I found ourselves sitting around a BBQ, drinking Soju (North Korean vodka), and listening to one of the country’s best military film directors tell an anti-Soviet joke. The humour and unashamed passion of the North Koreans, their bluntness and warmth, reminded me of many South Koreans I’ve met. Which shouldn’t be surprising – they were all one country, until 60 years ago. And humour’s one of the best ways of coping and staying resilient, when you live inside a place that can send you away from one wrong move.
The gonzo style of the film brings to mind controversial peeps such as Broomfeild, Theroux, and Michael Moore. They’re all dudes. Do you think there’s ensconced resistance to women in these kind of roles?
Probably. Although perhaps more so now than in the pre-911 90s, when the artistic and political climate was far more open in the West than it is now. That era gave us French & Saunders, Ruby Wax and Elle McFeast in Oz – plus a slew of women directors. I think the whole dude-food/dude-presenter/dude-daredevil thing has become its own genre – funny guys with beards being the everyman, from Shane Smith of Vice and that gay-looking couple on Myth Busters to Michael Moore and Bear Grylls. Having said that, European and UK broadcasters are actively putting everywomen presenters on air – but Australia hasn’t moved on from the Bechdel test. I know that if I was a middle-aged white dude with a beard and walked into Madman and said ‘I’ve got access to North Korea; wanna fund my film?’, the distribution of AIM HIGH! would’ve been very different. If I was a writer, I’d use a male pseudonym. As it is, I’m thinking of growing a beard.
Is the last question sexist? When Playboy recently tweeted “Artist Neko Case is breaking the mould of what women in the music industry should be,” Neko declared in response “I’M NOT A FUCKING ‘WOMAN IN MUSIC,’ I’M A FUCKING MUSICIAN IN MUSIC!” “GET WITH THE NOW, PUSSY-SHAVERS!” “DON’T PEGGY OLSEN ME, MOTHERFUCKERS.” Am I Peggy Olsening you? I’m not sure how to discuss the possibility of gender inequality in the industry without asking you about your experience as a woman.
Ha ha, good on her. Yes, I am a filmmaker first. But the reason your question is valid is because I chose to be in AIM HIGH!, Spurlock-style, rather than stay behind the lens. If I had, the question would be mostly irrelevant (although I’m a strong believer in the inherent difference of the non-white, non-straight male, non-mainstream gaze). I guess if nothing else me being in AIM HIGH! highlights the fact that there aren’t enough examples out there yet of women doing this to move it from weird and unclassifiable to an acceptable genre. Women can be comedians, reality-TV hostesses and journalists. Maverick frontmen, doc-provocateurs and daredevils – that’s still the province of the mainstream dude. When a woman does it, it’s ‘niche’.
What would advice would give to browbeaten radicals who, after losing hope sometime after the failed anti Iraq war protests, got too distracted by all the American Apparel ads on the back of Vice mags too learn to figure out how to care again?
Aww, I hear you. People Power is all we’ve got. A cynic is an optimist who’s given up. Stay true and keep fighting but have fun along the way or what you produce won’t help anyone. Highjack the mainstream with subversion whenever possible. And the last word belongs with Noam Chomsky, who I interviewed for Helen’s War, just after the world outcry against the American invasion failed. I was depressed and couldn’t believe he wasn’t. He was pretty upbeat. Sure, we failed to stop them, he said (I’m shamelessly paraphrasing) – but those worldwide protests were much bigger than Vietnam ever was. Thanks to social media, communities can now mobilise like never before. The next time the powers-that-be try to do something so transparently wrong, the protests will be even bigger. And one day, we’ll tip the scale – and win.
Do you honestly believe that you can make a difference?
See above. What choice do we have but to keep on trying? Sure you’ll end up with a nice home and a comfortable life if you don’t, but I think the main question is how do you want to feel about your life when it’s over? Art and Humour are both extremely powerful, and extremely subversive. They speak truth to Power. Power knows that. And for this reason, an artist is never really poor.
You’re working on a book related to your experiences making Aim High in Creation, is this going to focus on North Korea more than the fracking? will you be mentioning things that you didn’t feel comfortable expressing in the film?
Yes it’s all about the stuff that happened in North Korea that I couldn’t film. It’s more personal journey than political critique. Kind of Bridget Jones-does-North Korea, with some sobering discoveries thrown in along the way. I was going though a divorce when I made AIM HIGH! – I’m really glad I went through it in Pyongyang. The reasons why are all in the book, which comes out through Penguin later this year.
How can we see Aim High in Creation?
Catch it at the Chauvel while it’s still on in Sydney; keep your eyes peeled for releases in other cities and regional areas, and tune into the ABC in early November.
Thanks for your time, make sure you let us know when the book is out.