Monday, 11 January 2016


Viking, 2015, 324 pages
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
In Pyongyang in 2012, wedged in a car between her North Korean Workers Party minders on a sweaty, 40 degree, trip to meet the Stalinist north’s leading film directors, actors and composers, the Sydney film-maker, Anna Broinowski, takes a surreptitious spritz of perfume, to the delight of her foreign film crew who spy the label ‘Kim’ on the bottle of cologne - ‘you have a perfume named after the Dear Leader!’.
If only they knew, writes Broinowski in The Director is the Commander, that the ‘Kim’ in the label refers to the Kim Kardashian from the West’s “trashy celebrity culture” and not to North Korea’s harsh rulers (Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and the current Kim Jong Un), they wouldn’t be laughing at all.
Broinowski is the only Western film-maker ever granted total access to the North Korean film industry which has “built one of the most successful propaganda machines on earth”.  The visit resulted from a spontaneous career decision by the employment-strapped, “between projects”, freelance documentary director who had “spent her twenties steeped in Marx and Billy Bragg” and was now campaigning against a polluting coal-seam-gas (CSG) mine in her local public park in suburban Erskineville.
An ABC producer had given Broinowski a smuggled copy of Kim Jong Il’s cinema manifesto, The Cinema and Directing, and Broinowski had an inspiration.  The Hollywood-loving Kim Jong Il, she notes, had himself made 1,400 films which were, she says, “funny – in a bad way” because of their melodramatic acting, jerky camera moves, didactic dialogue and out-of-sync dubbed sound as their North Korean casts would randomly swell into song and deliver turgid, ten-minute death speeches extolling the greatness of Kim. 
Could the techniques of the North Korean propaganda films, “whose very oddness gave them a unique appeal”, be harnessed to attract viewers to a non-conventional documentary and help stop the local CSG mine, Broinowski wonders?
Such a film might also help break off a chink or two from the wall of Western derision and hostility that surrounds all things North Korean.  Broinowski has no illusions about the human rights abuses, rigid conformity and cult of personality that pervade North Korea where even inadvertent failure to parrot the regime’s ridiculous slogans could brand someone an ‘ideological criminal’ and invite a (sometimes one-way) ticket to a ‘re-education’ gulag.
North Korea’s reputation is grim enough without being supplemented by the fabrications that Western propaganda routinely forges, says Broinowski, but is there some place between the regime’s giant propaganda faƧade and the West’s “beyond evil” view of North Korea where brainwashed automatons live in abject misery and eat grass to survive?
She finds some aspects of North Korean reality not unappealing - “capitalism has been turned off” and with it the visual and aural noise of cars, advertisements, plastic bags, video games, fast food, leaf-blowers and crystal meth addicts slumped in pools of their own vomit.  “This would never happen in Pyongyang” becomes her “new righteous mantra” as she ruefully reflects on such urban blights when back in Sydney.
This somewhat flippant upside, however, is spoiled by the sense of menace Broinowski experiences in the North Korean background – the constant surveillance, the censorship of what she can and can’t film, and the anonymous ‘Man in Black’ taking notes in the corner whenever Broinowski meets her North Korean colleagues for interviews and discussion of her anti-CSG mini-film, The Gardener.
She takes hope, however, from the occupational camaraderie between the Australian and North Korean film crews, and from the joking, profanity, flirting and friendliness that escapes from beneath the routinely sunny propaganda monologues delivered by her well-rehearsed interviewees.  This reinforces Broinowski’s aim to “humanise the North Koreans … and make the case for cultural diplomacy over military threats and sanctions”.
Her documentary, premiered in 2013, “reproduces the key tropes of the North Korean propaganda movie in the middle of Sydney – a suffering working class heroine, people randomly bursting into song, sentimental nature metaphors, two chaste star-crossed lovers and an evil capitalist who comes to a sticky end”.  Contained in a longer critical documentary (Aim High In Creation!) about the making of The Gardener, Broinowski hopes it will be more art than a crude parody of the North Korean movie house-style.
She realises, however, that “the combination of Kim Jong Il and coal seam gas was always going to be a stretch”, and, sharing her doubts, are some of her Sydney anti-CSG activists who were a little perplexed and made uneasy by “linking their cause to a totalitarian regime”, whilst conservative commentators gloated in the opportunity to launch into their own favourite propaganda chorus on the sins of socialism and environmentalism.
Others, however, embraced the documentary for its novelty, surrealism, humour and emotional warmth - and for its excellence as political cinema.  All these virtues are reinforced by Broinowski’s book, with its irresistibly bright and breezy tone, and its challenging probe into the nature of propaganda, both totalitarian-state and liberal-capitalist.

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