In 2009 documentary filmmaker James Page travelled to North Korea on a tourist visa, carrying with him a set of different cameras. Fascinated by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea since a young age, James’ intention was not to come back with a story designed around a pre-conceived narrative, but to grasp the opportunity and connect with the real people he met. 7 years on James’ film, From North to South Korea, has its world premiere on Tuesday 18th October at the New Orleans Film Festival. We spoke to James to learn about his journey to North Korea and the one he has been on since, to finally release the film.
What is the most fascinating thing to you about North Korea?
For me, the most interesting thing about North Korea is the lack of information there is about the inner workings of the country and the lives of the people there. Likewise the perceptions the outside world has because of this.
Could you tell me about the origins of the project?
From North to South Korea initially started as a desire to see the last country divided by the Cold War and see what 65+ years of division by politics looks like. I visited both North and South Korea in 2009 armed with a polaroid camera, DV camera, Super 8 camera and a digital camera. I thought that capturing a country unlike any other in different formats would be an interesting way to try to make some sort of sense of the things I would see and experience. It was not until I came back from North Korea having made a friendship with my North Korean guides (Mr. Pak and Mr. Kim), and visited a South Korean friend (Geon-hee) that I realised I had formed friendships on both sides of the border and that despite both sets of people being Koreans, they had no realistic chance of meeting due to the division of their nation. It was this realisation which made me pursue, what essentially was a personal study of a place, into a short documentary.
Why has it taken a number of years for you to be able to release the film?
2009 seems like such a long time ago to have shot a documentary which I am now releasing. Initially my biggest issue was moral and legal. When I went to The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea’s official name) I went under a tourist visa and not as a journalist. When I came home I realised the content I had shot for my own use, told a story that I wanted to share with others, and as such anything I created and showed publicly would be considered a misuse of my tourist visa by the North Korean Government and Koryo Tours, the sanctioned tour company I utilised to visit the country. Violating a tourist visa in this way could result in both my guides loosing their jobs, the tour company having its license revoked, myself being barred from visiting North Korea again, and the potential of legal action.
Several TV and online documentaries about North Korea have chosen this route, believing that once they have their story they will have no need to go back to North Korea or worry about the people they came into contact with. In order to make sure my guides would not be compromised by an unauthorised release of a film using ‘tourist footage’ I had to gain approval of the film by the North Korean government. If I could not get this authorisation, then I would not show the film. Fortunately the owner of the tour company, Nick Bonner, has also produced 3 of the most respected, legally shot, documentaries about North Korea. With his help and mentorship I was able to edit my original cut of the film in a way which maintained the same level of engagement with the subject of North Korea, while using language that was non confrontational to the North Korean government.
After three years of various cuts, and a number of run arounds with Embassy Staff at the North Korean Embassy in London, I was finally given approval to show the film, and a confirmation that their would be no issues for my guides, the tour company, or any issues for me going back to North Korea in the future. In that same time period I signed with a production company who was very eager to market the film, but once I finally got permission the documentary side of things had shifted, which then left my film stuck in a contract I could not leave for another year and a half. Finally with my film free from government, moral and contractual issues, I was able to start post-production, which thanks to some amazing favours and talent, I was able to finally ‘finish’ in early 2016. Its been a long journey and one I thought about leaving behind, but for better or for worse the situation on the Korean Peninsula has hardly changed, and the story I tell has stood the test of the past 7 years, due to the lack of change between the North and South.
What surprised you most about visiting North Korea?
It sounds very simple, but what surprised me most about North Korea was seeing people living their lives. North Korea is probably one of the most politicised and dehumanised nations on earth, and the idea of what it must be like to live your day to day life there is on the bottom of many people’s question lists when trying to engage with the topic of North Korea.
What was the experience like from an emotional perspective? Was it moving, nerve wracking, surprising?
Initially visiting North Korea was intimidating. Despite my attempts to study North Korea, its history, etc, it’s hard for all the terrifying things we hear about the country to not influence one’s experience. Would people try to brainwash me? Were there microphones in my hotel room? Would I be used as propaganda? These gut reactions quickly left, and I tried to engage with my guides as people and not as government minders. However after leaving North Korea, visiting South Korea and seeing the border from both North and South and knowing people who I cared for on each side, the emotion that stays with me to this day is a great sadness for this division and the suffering this division has caused.
What did making this film teach you about your own experience, growing up in the USA & UK?
Having Grown up partially in the US you are taught at an early age that communism (or countries that call themselves communist) are the epitome of evil, before you have any idea of what communism or socialism are, so the idea of being in this ‘other’ place still carried a certain sense of unease despite however aware I thought I was about my own education. Trying to be aware of how my own unconscious prejudices influenced my experience of North Korea was a journey in itself. Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, is often labeled as a show capital, and indeed it is, but what nation’s capital is not a show capital? We see North Korean’s as brainwashed into believing in a system and a certain way of life, but how have our own governments conditioned us to think and operate in a certain way? Turning those statements about North Korea into questions about how our own countries operate and being aware of those same parallels in my life and our society was probably the biggest lesson I took in regards to my own upbringing in the UK and USA.
Is there anything that you would like the audience at the New Orleans Film Fest to take away from the film in particular?
I would like for people attending the New Orleans Film Festival to leave the film thinking about the people who live in North Korea and the division of Korea as a whole, the next time they see an article about the ongoing nuclear and human rights issues on the Korean Peninsula.
What kind of relationships did you develop around making the film? Who are you still in touch with?
The biggest relationships I have made from this film were my friendships with my North Korean guides Mr Kim and Mr Pak, and the continuing friendship with my South Korean friend Geon-hee. Keeping in contact with Mr. Kim, Mr. Pak and Geonhee has been two different experiences. With Geonhee, despite that we now do not live in the same city, we keep in contact via the usual means of Facebook, Skype, whatsapp, etc. We chat regularly, and its really an afterthought about our access to communicate with one another. My communications with Mr. Kim and Mr. Pak couldn’t be more different. The vast majority of North Koreans do not have any access to the world wide web, emails, or the ability to make calls or send letters to people outside of their borders. I took the only avenue of communication with my guides that I was presented with; writing a letter to them, which was sent to the Korean tour company who would then review the letter and decide whether to pass it on to Mr. Kim and Mr. Pak. Unfortunately I never got a response and have no idea if they received my letter or if they did try to respond. One day I hope to go back and see them, show them the film, and see how they are.
What documentaries inspire you?
Nick Bonner’s film A State of Mind inspired me to make documentaries and try to approach subjects such as North Korea through people and not just politics. More broadly such greats as Werner Herzog, Chris Marker, and Errol Morris are a constant source of inspiration. Joshua Oppenheimer’s films have been a more recent inspiration as well.
What can you tell me about your upcoming filmmaking projects?
Currently I have a feature in development which is a sequel to my short. From South To North Korea will attempt to make the impossible happen and allow for Geonhee to travel to North Korea legally and meet Mr Kim and Mr Pak. The Film will examine the process of just how difficult it is for North and South Koreans to try to meet and the history and politics of why Koreans of both North and South have been kept from interacting with one another.