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Dissecting propaganda, using North Korea as a guide

  • Dina Indrasafitri

    The Jakarta Post

Melbourne | Mon, October 14, 2013 | 12:53 pm
Dissecting propaganda, using North Korea as a guide Anna Broinowski: (Courtesy of Unicorn Films)" border="0" height="341" width="512">Anna Broinowski: (Courtesy of Unicorn Films)

Anna Broinowski is not alone in her disenchantment with capitalism. And when it comes to her fascination with North Korea, the Australian director is hardly alone either.

But in combining those two sentiments into a movie, Broinowski, whose films include Forbidden Lie$ and Sexing the Label, is rare.

After all, it is not every day that a director decides to use North Korean-style propaganda to attack what Broinowski calls “vulture capitalism” in a first-world country.

Yet this is exactly what her new film, Aim High in Creation!, aimed to do.

Part documentary, part propaganda film, Aim High takes the audience from one bizarre situation (mingling with the movers and shakers in North Korea’s film industry) to another (Australians in Sydney singing earnestly in impromptu musical scenes glorifying village life).

The documentary segment of Aim High offers depictions of everyday life in Pyongyang, while the propaganda segment gives viewers a chance to see Australian actors shedding what Broinowski calls a “low key and super Hollywood” style in story that condemns a coal seam gas plant.

Striking a balance is difficult: North Korea and coal seam gas are both issues prone to controversy and debate.

Odd mix: Part documentary, part propaganda film, Aim High in Creation! takes the audience from one bizarre situation to another. (Courtesy of Unicorn Films)Odd mix: Part documentary, part propaganda film, Aim High in Creation! takes the audience from one bizarre situation to another. (Courtesy of Unicorn Films)
Some might criticize Aim High for making fun of North Korea, due to the at-times comic explanations of the nation’s society, complete with colorful animated segments.

On the other hand, there is also the risk that the film is exploiting coal seam gas — a hot-button topic in Australia — to fuel her own fascination with North Korea.

However, Broinowski says that neither situation is the case.

“It is not quite true that I suddenly looked around and thought ‘Oh, I know, coal seam gas, how convenient’,” Broinowski said, adding separately that the last thing she wanted was for viewers to think that she was making fun of North Koreans. “What happened was my interest in coal seam gas and my interest in propaganda and Kim Jong-il dovetailed.”

Broinowski’s fascination with the late “Dear Leader” was partly triggered by Kim’s 1987 book The Cinema and Directing, which was given to her as a birthday present from a friend.

“I read it at first as a kind of curiosity,” Broinowski said. “Then I started to find what he had to say astonishing, surprisingly interesting — and at times even astute.”

Kim was a reputed cinephile — reportedly supervising the production of a host of North Korean movies and possessing a vault holding tens of thousands of Hollywood movie titles.

The Cinema and Directing contains Kim’s formula for crafting powerful propaganda movies, including rules such as “aim high in creation” and “best use should be made of music”

According to Broinowski, while reading the book, she also grew enraged by an energy company’s plan to build a coal seam gas mine around 200 meters from her house. “The propaganda being used to sell coal seam gas is far more sophisticated than the propaganda that North Koreans use to sell their socialist utopia.”

A mix of fascination, frustration, and “why not” thoughts eventually brought Broinowski to North Korea to seek advice from the country’s filmmaking elite, including one of Kim’s favorite directors, Pak Jong-ju.

 Her first visit, which was one week long, was to get to know North Korea’s top figures in the industry, and the second trip, which ran for two-and-a-half weeks, was to shoot the film.

Broinowski was exposed to a city where pictures of landscapes and propaganda posters are present in public spaces in lieu of advertisements.

Dear Leader: It is not every day that a director decides to use North Korean-style propaganda to attack what Broinowski calls “vulture capitalism” in a first-world country. (Courtesy of Unicorn Films)

Anna Broinowski: (Courtesy of Unicorn Films)

Anna Broinowski is not alone in her disenchantment with capitalism. And when it comes to her fascination with North Korea, the Australian director is hardly alone either.

But in combining those two sentiments into a movie, Broinowski, whose films include Forbidden Lie$ and Sexing the Label, is rare.

After all, it is not every day that a director decides to use North Korean-style propaganda to attack what Broinowski calls '€œvulture capitalism'€ in a first-world country.

Yet this is exactly what her new film, Aim High in Creation!, aimed to do.

Part documentary, part propaganda film, Aim High takes the audience from one bizarre situation (mingling with the movers and shakers in North Korea'€™s film industry) to another (Australians in Sydney singing earnestly in impromptu musical scenes glorifying village life).

The documentary segment of Aim High offers depictions of everyday life in Pyongyang, while the propaganda segment gives viewers a chance to see Australian actors shedding what Broinowski calls a '€œlow key and super Hollywood'€ style in story that condemns a coal seam gas plant.

Striking a balance is difficult: North Korea and coal seam gas are both issues prone to controversy and debate.

Odd mix: Part documentary, part propaganda film, Aim High in Creation! takes the audience from one bizarre situation to another. (Courtesy of Unicorn Films)Odd mix: Part documentary, part propaganda film, Aim High in Creation! takes the audience from one bizarre situation to another. (Courtesy of Unicorn Films)
Some might criticize Aim High for making fun of North Korea, due to the at-times comic explanations of the nation'€™s society, complete with colorful animated segments.

On the other hand, there is also the risk that the film is exploiting coal seam gas '€” a hot-button topic in Australia '€” to fuel her own fascination with North Korea.

However, Broinowski says that neither situation is the case.

'€œIt is not quite true that I suddenly looked around and thought '€˜Oh, I know, coal seam gas, how convenient'€™,'€ Broinowski said, adding separately that the last thing she wanted was for viewers to think that she was making fun of North Koreans. '€œWhat happened was my interest in coal seam gas and my interest in propaganda and Kim Jong-il dovetailed.'€

Broinowski'€™s fascination with the late '€œDear Leader'€ was partly triggered by Kim'€™s 1987 book The Cinema and Directing, which was given to her as a birthday present from a friend.

'€œI read it at first as a kind of curiosity,'€ Broinowski said. '€œThen I started to find what he had to say astonishing, surprisingly interesting '€” and at times even astute.'€

Kim was a reputed cinephile '€” reportedly supervising the production of a host of North Korean movies and possessing a vault holding tens of thousands of Hollywood movie titles.

The Cinema and Directing contains Kim'€™s formula for crafting powerful propaganda movies, including rules such as '€œaim high in creation'€ and '€œbest use should be made of music'€

According to Broinowski, while reading the book, she also grew enraged by an energy company'€™s plan to build a coal seam gas mine around 200 meters from her house. '€œThe propaganda being used to sell coal seam gas is far more sophisticated than the propaganda that North Koreans use to sell their socialist utopia.'€

A mix of fascination, frustration, and '€œwhy not'€ thoughts eventually brought Broinowski to North Korea to seek advice from the country'€™s filmmaking elite, including one of Kim'€™s favorite directors, Pak Jong-ju.

 Her first visit, which was one week long, was to get to know North Korea'€™s top figures in the industry, and the second trip, which ran for two-and-a-half weeks, was to shoot the film.

Broinowski was exposed to a city where pictures of landscapes and propaganda posters are present in public spaces in lieu of advertisements.

Dear Leader: It is not every day that a director decides to use North Korean-style propaganda to attack what Broinowski calls '€œvulture capitalism'€ in a first-world country. (Courtesy of Unicorn Films)Dear Leader: It is not every day that a director decides to use North Korean-style propaganda to attack what Broinowski calls '€œvulture capitalism'€ in a first-world country. (Courtesy of Unicorn Films)
The director said that she made friends with local filmmakers, who often cracked witty jokes and made insightful comments, and even acted in a movie as an evil American, although the director of that scene seemed less than impressed by her skills.

While Broinowski admitted that Aim High was unlikely to stop coal seam gas mining, she said that had not been her actual goal.

North Korean propaganda was the film'€™s gimmick. '€œI am using it as a hook to get audiences in, so I can then convert them to this idea that coal seam gas is really bad. In other words, I am using it as entertainment,'€ Broinowski said.

Several scenes in Aim High effectively captured this sentiment, particularly interviews with farmers, who claimed that their land and their family'€™s health had been affected by coal seam gas projects.

They delivered their messages quickly and powerfully, lasting just long enough to keep the movie from venturing into the area of a full-blown, militant anti-mining documentary.

Broinowski'€™s second goal in making the movie was to convert the mind-sets of people who view North Koreans as '€œbrainwashed automatons'€, which she did through animating talks with North Koreans.

In one effective scene, a North Korean asked if people in the nation knew about climate change responded with humor, saying '€œDo you think we live on the moon?'€

In the end, viewers may be left with the idea that all film is propaganda, which is a sentiment Broinowski supports. '€œFilmmakers are propagandists, as well.'€

Indonesians born before the end of the New Order dictatorship can relate. The movie Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI, for example, demonized the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) for its alleged role in the failed coup attempt in 1965.

During the reign of Soeharto, the bloody film, directed by Arifin C. Noer, was regularly screened on television. Students were also required to watch.

While the days of obligatory screenings are over, movies and television series in Indonesia now contain their own massages of propaganda, whether consumerist, religious or nationalist.

Or, as two people discussing North Korean propaganda in Aim High say:

 '€œDon'€™t they get sick of the same vibes over and over again?'€

'€œDon'€™t we get sick of Coke ads?'€

Aim High in Creation! premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival this year.

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