Single-issue documentaries are propaganda. Most of the time that particular observation is meant as a criticism. It usually implies that the film is boring, transparent and far from artful. The aggressive monotony of Soviet Socialist Realism comes to mind, or at least the more muted blandness of Al Gore’s Oscar-winning PowerPoint presentation. But what if propaganda were fun? Is it possible for a single-issue documentary to be both kitsch and effective, artistic and thoroughly devoted to a single cause?
Australian filmmaker Anna Broinowski tries to pull it off with Aim High in Creation!. Her single issue is the havoc wreaked by fracking in her native Sydney by a greedy and willfully mendacious energy industry. She opens her film with an attempt to make a more traditional expose, which fails miserably. She films herself on the phone trying to get through to energy companies, underlining the difficulty with almost campy flourishes. Frustrated, she takes to desperate measures. A self-identified longtime fan of bombastic and doctrinaire North Korean movies, she decides to make one of her own. She hires actors and writes a script according to the precepts ascribed in Kim Jong-il’s book on cinema. Then she hops on a plane to Pyongyang.
Her request to Kim Jong-un’s government is, essentially, that she be allowed to learn from its masters of cinema. Broinowski is given unprecedented access to the North Korean industry. She meets with directors, actors, writers, composers and anyone else who will talk with her. She seems earnestly interested in what they have to say. This isn’t satirical critique in the manner of The Red Chapel but rather a much more honest fascination with propaganda. This allows her to get along quite famously with the North Koreans. They help revise her script, write an original song for her and take her around all of the near-permanent sets that they have built for their own films. She is even given the opportunity to act in one of their anti-American Korean War dramas.
Thus Aim High in Creation! is, among all of its other merits, an invaluable documentary on North Korean cinema. Broinowski has included an extensive sampling of clips from propaganda films, many of them immensely entertaining. She also gets to meet some of the most powerful characters in the industry, as well as the strangest. She even performs alongside the Dresnok brothers, the actor sons of an American soldier who defected during the Korean War and became the principal portrayer of evil Westerners in North Korean movies.
Along the way, however, she continues the pursuit of her own mission to highlight the problems with fracking back in Australia. Aim High in Creation! does not actually forego all of the typical Western issue documentary techniques. Following the advice of North Korean experts, she hones the ideology of her actors by taking them out to land that has been destroyed by fracking. Farmers are interviewed, testifying that their water has become flammable and that their kids are getting sick. Much of it could have been lifted right from Gasland and slapped with an Aussie accent. Yet the strength of the framing, presenting this as an activity for the actors rather than proof for the audience, shows a factual argument that has already been won.
Broinowski gets to have her cake and eat it, too. Her final product, an imitation North Korean propaganda short film about a gardener who convinces a town to fight the energy industry, doesn’t really even need to succeed. It is more of a victory lap than a rhetorical tool, the triumphant conclusion to a documentary that has already figured out how to win over its audience. Moreover, Aim High in Creation! gets to be a truly interesting discourse on propaganda along the way.
Broinowski uses the kitschy aesthetics of reality television to poke fun at both North Korea and her own project, reminiscent of Errol Morris’s flourishes in Tabloid. The point seems to be that we shouldn’t take any of this too seriously, that propaganda is a tool rather than an ideology. In this way Broinowski has done the unthinkable. She has made a propaganda film that asks questions and leaves them unanswered, turning the facile politics of the issue film into a work of art.
Aim High in Creation! screened at the Film Society of Lincoln Center this week as part of the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.