North Korean cinema: Kim Jong-il's movie mania

Kim Jong-il had 20,000 Hollywood DVDs – but then North Korea loves cinema, a fascinating new documentary reveals

Anna Broinowski, an Australian documentary-maker, was given unprecedented access to some of North Korea's top secrets but, for once, it wasn't to do with politics or nuclear weapons. Instead, she went to uncover the fascinating, if somewhat unusual, world of North Korean cinema, controlled for so many years by the nation's “Creative Commander”, former Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il. The documentary Aim High In Creation, currently in post-production, began as Broinowksi's mission to create a short film following the rules laid out in the former North Korean leader's treatise Manifesto on the Art of the Cinema.

“A friend brought back a copy from North Korea as a present. It was this perfect, utilitarian, bound, workmanlike volume,” says Broinowski , who is best known for the investigative documentary Forbidden Lie$. “I was immediately intrigued by the mechanics of making a socialist propaganda movie. At the same time, there was a gas company trying to drill in a park 200 metres from where I live in the middle of Sydney. So I decided to make a propaganda movie, following to the letter Kim Jong-il's rather counter-cultural techniques, to stop the gas line.”

But what began as an exercise in propaganda soon snowballed into something much bigger when Broinowski turned to senior figures in North Korean film for advice. Flattered that anyone from the West was interested in their film-making techniques, they were only too happy to help. After an initial vetting process, Broinowski and Aim High's producer, Lizzette Atkins, were given access to the entire North Korean film industry, including the chance to speak to top directors, actors and editors, and shoot footage on the sets of their movies.

This then changed their entire focus to a full documentary exploring North Korean cinema with the short propaganda film slotted in at the end. En route they came across a host of unusual films and film-makers, including Ri Gwannam, “a very auterish, gruff man who does a lot of military songs and is fond of insulting his actors”, according to Broinowski.

Gwannam was shooting a historical drama on the decks of a real-life US spy ship, the USS Pueblo, which had been captured by the North Koreans in 1968. Lacking caucasian actors, Gwannam took the opportunity to cast Broinowski as an evil American (although she fluffed her lines). In a further twist, Broinowski also got to speak to a soldier in the demilitarised zone about cinema theory and the Mad Max films.

“It was so unusual for them to have a Westerner there not wanting to investigate the gulags, but actually genuinely interested in sitting down with them and understanding how they make their films,” Broinowski says.

North Korea has had a thriving film industry for 65 years, and it is well documented that Kim Jong-il was a huge film buff. Between 1964 and 2012, he oversaw thousands of North Korean movies, covering every genre from martial arts to romantic comedies. The directors of these films have always been well looked after by the state; some of them are even sent to Russia to study cinematography.

Interestingly, the “Sun of Socialism” Kim Jong-il also had an air-conditioned vault beneath his palace with more than 20,000 Hollywood DVDs. Indeed, some of the Korean films he oversaw were versions of famous blockbusters such as Titanic, Godzilla and even Gladiator.

“I got to see clips from several North Korean films... The Godzilla film, called Pulgasari, is actually excellent,” insists Broinowski. “But, in general, their films are an acquired taste. It's like stepping back in time in their look and feel. They still use the technology that we were using 30 or 40 years ago.”

North Korean film-makers are still mostly shooting on celluloid using long shots, long takes and post-recorded sound. This proved to be a stumbling block for Broinowski when making her propaganda film. “I used a Korean film crew but had to train one of them how to hold a boom,” she explains.

The Korean crew, including two interpreters and a fixer, were with Broinowski and Atkins the entire time. “We drank together, enjoyed a laugh and shared a real camaraderie as film-makers,” she says.

Inevitably, though, there were restrictions. “You are only taken to places they want to show you, and they are protective of images of the 'Dear Leader', but we were afforded a relative amount of freedom because they appreciated what we were doing,” says Atkins.

Broinowski hopes that once her film is released in cinemas, it will “help to build a bridge between North Korea and the outside world through diplomacy, rather than knee-jerk militarism, which is not getting anyone anywhere”.