Back to Listing

Australian documentary maker Anna Broinowski on North Korea

26 June 2015

Anna Broinowksi Small

About three years ago in a quiet deal done between the NSW state government and a company called Dart Energy, drilling for coal seam gas (CSG) was set to begin in inner south west Sydney down the road from Sydney Park. Community groups got wind of the deal and got marching. CSG in inner Sydney did not see the light of day.

The documentary filmmaker, Anna Broinowski (above), was one of the protesting residents. She also decided to make an anti-CSG film using the techniques of the world’s masters of film propaganda, North Korea.

To cut a long story short - because you can now read all about it in Anna’s new book - that protest film sat inside a documentary called Aim High in Creation. It made use of North Korean film making techniques as dictated by the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il. The documentary Anna shot over 21 days inside North Korea itself in September 2012.

Anna’s book traces how and why the project and the 21-day shoot in North Korea became a reality and then what happened while she was in North Korea. It is called The Director is the Commander (Penguin Viking, rrp $32.99). For North Korea buffs, and there are growing number of people fascinated by the hermit state, its people and leaders, it’s a must read. It’s “a unique journey inside North Korea’s propaganda machine”.

Sinister and amusing – The Director is the Commander is able to go into much greater depth about what Anna experienced in North Korea, albeit incidents and names have been altered to protect the people she met and got to know from what she acknowledges is a very brutal regime.

“I checked the text and the more incendiary of my stories with Nick Bonner my British contact with North Korea to make sure my subjects would be safe. It was the same with the documentary and it meant self-censoring and that was difficult – I don’t think I would be able to do that again,” Anna explains when we meet in Erskineville, an inner west suburb of Sydney in which she lives and which is a few hundred metres down the road from the proposed CSG drilling site that kick-started the whole project.

“I wanted to open up some kind of understanding of these people but not at the expense of their safety. The doco is about propaganda on both sides. The book is more open and much of it is made up of my thoughts and observations while I was shooting in Pyongyang.”

Anna captures what it is to live in a country locked away from the world, run by an all-powerful family dynasty that to retain its wilful tyrannical hold on a whole country believes in silencing anything that might be construed as opposition to it.

When the documentary was released in late 2013 and it didn’t do as well as she hoped, Anna admits she was upset at the time. She wanted to get it into America to reach that audience and media.

“I am a reverse propagandist. I didn’t want to present an alternative to the North Korea we know but I did want to present another side of North Korea, one we don’t often hear about.

“It wasn’t to negate the evil North Korea stories we get but to present a balance, to show that the people who live there - through no fault of their own - can’t all be tarred with the same brush with which we tar the Kims. They [the Kims] are undeniably evil and repressive. But I wanted to show that there might be more than the three stories we’re always fed about North Korea: the gulags, starvation and brain washing stories.

“Aim High in Creation, the documentary, wanted to take into account the 16 million North Koreans who aren’t, according to World Health Organisation figures, lacking in adequate food and are able to survive. I also wanted to look at the North Koreans who aren’t the 150 to 200,000 people estimated by human rights organisations to be in concentration camps.”

This is not as Anna is quick to point out her being an apologist for the regime but, “let’s look at the ordinary North Koreans - obviously poor by our standards - but let’s try and understand who they are, what are their dreams, thoughts.

“If we keep allowing the media to de-humanise and demonise those ordinary people then the only solution to North Korea will be military, because if they’re de-humanised it’s very easy to go in and regime change.”

Following the recent Sony Interview incident Netflix bought Aim High in Creation and Anna has achieved what she hoped to do, which was to get a story out into America and the world that provides something a little wider than the average stories we get in the West about North Korea.

“I am not sad about it anymore [the documentary’s initial failure to win an American audience] because I have the book and that is even more of the story I wanted to tell,” says Anna.

Anna Broinowski is the daughter of diplomats: Alison and Richard Broinowski. She was born in Japan and grew up in South-east Asia. She speaks Japanese, has been an actor and rock violinist and is now a filmmaker. Among her hits is the documentary Forbidden Lie$, the story of the con artist Norma Khouri.

Norma Khouri wrote the book Forbidden Love, supposedly the true story of "Dalia", a young Muslim woman in Jordan murdered by her family in an honour killing because of her affair with a Christian soldier. But Khouri’s account is challenged, first by Jordanians, then by Malcom Knox, an Australian journalist.

As Anna’s film progresses, it begins to reveal other inconsistencies in Khouri’s life, including the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonds from an elderly woman neighbour in Chicago.

Of Khouri, Anna says, “If you could bottle that woman’s pheromones you could make millions. I walked with her through the Castro, which must have the most gay men per square inch on the planet, and literally men were falling over themselves to light her cigarette and invite her out. She was an incredibly magnetic person. I liked her.”

Anna is also the niece of anti-nuclear crusader Dr Helen Caldicott. She believes deeply in the power of communication, in talking and finding points of reference and solving differences by finding where we see eye to eye and not through military intervention.

Aim High in Creation,” she admits, “wasn’t a perfect film. I wanted to do better than that and the book was my chance to do that.

“We had a translator and received a simultaneous translation which I have to say wasn’t always accurate. We had the film rushes and so when we returned home I had some Korean friends tell me what was going on.”

It was revelatory, and the translations which appear in the book after the fact are there because they increase ours and Anna’s sense of who these people are.

She found North Koreans to be blunt and honest – a bit like we, as Australians, can be, and that can be very funny.

“They knew I had been an actor and I had the right look for a part one of North Korea’s famous directors was involved in filming when I was there, so he asked me to take part. At the time I had no idea what he was saying but he actually says to someone on the set when he sees me about to come on and do my part, ‘Quick, get a brush to her hair or she’ll look like a spinster’.”

This chuckle in the book makes the sinister aspects of Anna’s experience even more terrifying. For example, what is on the third floor of the Yangakkdo Hotel in Pyongyang where, as Anna points out, every entrepreneur, hack, spy, missionary, NGO and other person lucky enough to score a visa to the most isolated nation on earth has to stay? Her quick glimpses reveal banks of monitors – surveillance equipment?

And when, at the end of a long days shooting, the mini bus in which she and her North Korean crew are travelling drops her North Korean film counterparts home - and they wander off into the countryside toward rundown looking clusters of homes and flats - what does that say about the façade of Pyongyang and the reality of North Korea?

One thing Anna notes, and which on face value seems a wonderful leap for women, is the preponderance of leading ladies and great female roles in North Korean films. Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Consider, she says, who is making these movies and who is actually the star? It’s the Kims. They are the leading men. They do not suffer competition.