The history of revolutionary cinema has been marked by a number of mercurial manifestos.
Sergei Eisenstein, for example, believed in the brute potential of editing to activate the political senses. Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s influential 1969 essay Towards A Third Cinema sees in the “cinema of revolution” a “living reality which captures truth in any of its expressions”.
Dogme 95 – the movement begun in 1995 by the Danish film directors Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, Kristian Levring, and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen – presented cineastes and the cinephile with a set of rules known as the Vow of Chastity, and a desire to annihilate illusion and rebirth authenticity through films “taking place here and now”.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s The Cinema And Directing, the impetus for Australian documantary-maker Anna Broinowski’s Aim High in Creation! (2013), implores his followers that film “should play a mobilising role in each stage of the revolutionary struggle”.
Revolution. Struggle. Illusion. Mobilisation. Here and Now. Lofty and serious aims – but can cinema ever really get close to fomenting struggle, fostering active resistance?
Aim High in Creation!, a self-reflexive and humorous documentary-drama that premiered at last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, poses a similar question in its press kit, as to whether the film can deliver:
an astonishing new bond – between North Korea’s hidden filmmakers, and their collaborators in the Free World […] revealing an unexpected truth about the most isolated nation on earth: Filmmakers, no matter where they live, are family
As a premise, it’s convincing and strong. As a film, unfortunately, until the last third it doesn’t quite deliver.
The two central aims of Aim High in Creation! seem to be: to utilise the propaganda techniques of North Korean cinema to create a film that raises consciousness and helps stop a new coal seam gas (CSG) fracking mine in Sydney; and, to show how film artists are the same the world over.
Both of these aims are disappointingly thwarted, mainly due to uneasy shifts in tone and an over-riding sense of mockery that pervades the film. The heightened senses of North Korean melodrama are never given their due weight as significant carriers of feeling and affect.
The film seems to lampoon the sensory excesses that accompany the strings of heroic song, rather than understanding their extraordinary power to move viewers in resistant ways.
The conceit that filmmakers are a global “activist” family is haunted by the fact that Broinowski, the film’s director, never fully draws the threads of propaganda together to make a telling, overarching observation that cinema is always situated in complex political systems, all of which employ manipulation and persuasion to construct a truth.
But there are moments of delicious and exacting political framing when it comes to the topic of fracking. In one great scene a “Needle Energy” spokesperson attempts to sell the advantages of fracking by exclaiming, “our soil is totally different”. And through a number of self-reflexive interviews, we get to see our North Korean counterparts as fleshed-out and thoughtful human beings.
But all of this sits within a narrative that plays its cast for laughs. While comedy is a bawdy and political form that has the power to get beneath the skin of ideology, here its foolery lessens the film’s overall project and impact.
It’s interesting to consider this documentary-drama in the context of what many academic-practitioners are increasingly calling the “thesis film”. In short, this is a film – or similar narrative work – produced in an academic context, either as part of a PhD or by a member of continuing staff who’s charged with maintaining a “research profile”. Broinowski is a practice-based PhD candidate at Macquarie University, so there are direct links here.
The key driver of the thesis film is research. It’s beyond the scope of this article to define what we mean by research, though the Australian Research Council does have a set of guidelines that, like them or lump them, make an effort to speak to practitioners and those interested in “applied” industry partnerships.
What we can say confidently about the thesis film, and arguably Aim High in Creation!, is that is has a clear research methodology. Or, to be less academically oblique, a clear research design that informs its making.
Quite simply here, the filmmaker has set herself the challenge of trying to make a film with a particular political message, following the “rules” of the North Korean cinema manifesto. The filmmaker herself is part of the film, as a reflexive narrator and participant, which allows her to speak about her own practice and disseminate the “research findings” within the creative work itself.
This all sounds great, and for the purposes of a thesis film, it ticks every box imaginable. But for a film more broadly, one that has an agenda beyond its actual means of production, it’s quite a different story.
The key question for us thus becomes: is it doing enough? Does this film capture the audience’s emotions and orchestrate empathy about the topic, CSG? Is the narrative, like that of Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, structured carefully so that, as well as presenting various points of view, it maintains tonal stability and thus thematic importance? We’re not convinced.
A challenge for any film, fiction or non-fiction, is making its thematic essence clear, truthful and for the audience, identifiable and understood. Theme isn’t something that can be tacked on to a film at the end. It’s something that needs to drive the film throughout its development.
Theme influences – not affects, influences – every aspect of story design and, if there is one, the eventual screenplay: character, structure, pace, tone, visuality, dialogue, and so forth. Through story or script development, theme must be embraced as a way of unifying and ultimately improving the film.
Throughout Aim High in Creation, there are only a few references to factual and personal accounts of CSG, for us making its importance lost or forgotten about. It’s only as the film enters its final act (to use Western storytelling jargon) that we truly begin to understand the impact CSG is having on communities.
As we follow actress Susan Prior up to Brisbane, and witness the devastation GSG “production” (to quote on of the spokespeople) is having on the land and its people, we’re invited to share the experience. Thematically, these scenes pull us into the action and unlike the manifesto “storyline” that has us questioning what’s unfolding on screen, we don’t question what we see and hear – we simply feel it.
It’s this feeling that, as with An Inconvenient Truth, helps us understand not just what we’re watching, but why we’re watching it. Broinowski does attempt this from the opening, with her personal reaction to CSG told through the lens of its effect on her daughter. Unfortunately, as the film develops and the idea of the manifesto takes over, this thematic underpinning wanes.
This waning of affect works against the grain of revolutionary cinema. It undermines its ability to not only engage viewers emotionally and critically, but to sting them into action. Can cinema move us into making a stand? Absolutely.
Does Aim High in Creation! create the conditions for active resistance to fracking? Unfortunately, probably not.
Aim High in Creation! is screening exclusively at Cinema Nova in Melbourne from Thursday March 27.