Posts Tagged ‘Errol Morris’

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.

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Each decade since 1952 Sight & Sound, the official magazine of the BFI, have run a poll to find the Greatest Films of All Time. This year marks a dramatic change after decades of consensus; Vertigo has taken the top spot from Citizen Kane. Inspired by the poll we at Reflections have assembled our own 10 Greatest Films of All Time. Enjoy our greatest & message us with your own:

1. BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (DIR. R.W FASSBINDER, WEST GERMANY, 1980)

Berlin Alexanderplatz is the artistic and technical pinnacle of R.W Fassbinder’s career and a monumental piece of cinema. The film tells of ex-con Franz Biberkopf (played beautifully by Günter Lamprecht), struggling to go straight in pre-Nazi Germany. Running at an epic 15 and a half hours, the film never loses focus, vigorously translating Alfred Döblin’s source novel thanks to Fassbinder’s lifelong obsession with the material. Berlin Alexanderplatz showcases Fassbinder’s masterful directing skill, using complex camera movements, long takes and intensely demanding performances; this owes to his work in melodrama and crime thrillers. The film is particularly extraordinary for its intellectual use of contemporary music, which acts as a sinister critique of the German society of the day.

2. M (DIR. FRITZ LANG, GERMANY, 1931)

While Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz was about the Weimar Republic, Fritz Lang’s was made during the period. The film tells the story of a manhunt for child killer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre). Lang made the film later than his remarkable sci-fi Metropolis, but prior to his move to Hollywood. The film develops the seminal German Expressionist style, moving it from the crude stylings of Murnau’s Nosferatu, towards film noir like The Third Man and offerings as unique as Night of the Hunter. Lang’s direction is brilliantly haunting, utilising wide shots, extreme angles, baroque mise-en-scène and terrifyingly gloomy lighting. Its influence resonates throughout cinema history; the films of Christopher Nolan and David Fincher would certainly not be the same without it.

3. MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (DIR. DZIGA VERTOV, SOVIET UNION, 1929)

While early German cinema lead the way in terms of film lighting and miss-en-scène, Russian cinema of the Soviet era pushed the possibilities of editing. Dziga Vertov’s Soviet propaganda piece Man With A Movie Camera is perhaps the greatest feat of editing in cinema history, developing montage far beyond the Kuleshov effect. While the revolutionary Soviet films of Sergei Eisenstein (StrikeBattleship Potemkin) were undeniably powerful, Man With A Movie Camera achieves timelessness because it is not confined by the subject matter of Bolshevik revolution; it is a celebration of life, work and ultimately cinema itself.

4. AGUIRRE: WRATH OF GOD (DIR. WERNER HERZOG, WEST GERMANY, 1972)

Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath of God deserves status as one of, if not the most ambitious low budget film ever made. Shooting on the Amazon River with Klaus Kinski for only $370,000 US dollars, Herzog created a film that plays more like a hallucination than a story. Aguirre tells the story of Spanish conquistador Lope de Aguirre (Kinski) as he leads an army of soldiers in search of El Dorado, the mythic city of gold. Herzog’s ability to capture the power of nature is on display here, as is his ability to harness the treacherous genius of Klaus Kinski. Aguirre may not be Herzog’s most polished film, but it captures his singular vision and power of will at its most intense; it truly is a display of cinematic greatness.

5. THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (DIR. ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY, MEXICO, 1973)

Both a spiritual journey and a journey into the heart of cinema, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain is one of the most mind blowing experiences ever committed to film. The film revolves roughly around a petit thief, who bares a startling resemblance to Jesus, who embarks on a quest for gold. The thief’s quest ultimately and unexpectedly leads the film’s audience to enlightenment; it must be seen to be believed. The Holy Mountain is a feast of symbolism, which makes for a film as baffling as it is beautiful. Disciples of Jodorowksy will find the film the most rewarding, but this is ‘cinema for initiates’ and cinephiles would do well to acquaint themselves with Jodorowsky’s world.

6. REAR WINDOW (DIR. ALFRED HITCHCOCK, USA, 1958)

Like The Holy Mountain Hitchcock’s Rear Window is also a film about cinema. Where Jodorowsky’s film is a journey to enlightenment, Hitchcock’s is an exploration of obsessive voyeurism. Telling the story of an injured photojournalist, who suspects a murder in a in the flat opposite his, Rear Window displays Hitch at the height of his directing powers. The master of suspense amps up the drama for nearly two hours using point of view shots, long lenses and tracking shots to increase tension, all while James Stewart is confined to a wheelchair. Rear Window is not as flamboyant as Vertigo or as shocking as Psycho, but it captures Hitchcock’s profound urge to observe at its most essentially entertaining.

7. TASTE OF CHERRY (DIR. ABBAS KIAROSTAMI, IRAN, 1997)

Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema is that of a true humanist. Telling the story of Mr Badii, a suicidal man looking for a way to die, Taste of Cherry plays out like a list of reasons to live. The film relies on Kiarostami’s key motif of driving and the director frames his protagonist’s journey with optimistic simplicity; flocks of birds, winding roads and the sunset outside of Tehran are captured with long takes, on long lenses. The film was dogged by technical trouble after the footage from the final scenes was lost, but Kiarostami inserted digital video that he had filmed while shooting the final scenes. The end plays out like a coda celebrating the vitality of life found in filmmaking, while pioneering Kiarostami’s future explorations with digital technology.

8. COME AND SEE (DIR. ELEM KLIMOV, SOVIET UNION, 1985)

Elem Klimov’s Come and See is the greatest anti-war film ever created. A statement of sheer horror, this film has a hallucinatory quality akin to Aguirre: Wrath of God. The film tells of Flyora a young boy who joins the Soviet Army to fight the Nazis in WW2 and in the process ages dramatically both mentally and physically. The film is shot with a rugged handheld style reminiscent of neo-realism; this underplays any potential for Hollywood-style glamorisation. Klimov emphasises the horror of war when Flyora sees a church full of people burned alive by the SS and a sculpture of Hitler created from a human skeleton. Come and See contains images that burn long into the memory, it is cinema at its purest and most powerful. 

9. THE THIN BLUE LINE (DIR. ERROL MORRIS, USA, 1989)

The documentary The Thin Blue Line is a rare example of a film that genuinely changed the course of history. Director Errol Morris explores the legal case of Randall Adams, a man falsely accused for the murder of policeman Robert W. Wood in Dallas, Texas. The film unfolds like an inquiry by a private investigator, yet it also explores the dubious nature of memory through cinematic reconstructions shot in the style of a film noir. Morris’ interviews are unparalleled in their depth of information and quality of delivery; this ultimately lead to Adams being acquitted of the crime, following twelve years in prison and a stint on death row.

10. LE MEPRIS (DIR. JEAN-LUC GODARD, FRANCE, 1963)

Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt) is the greatest film ever made about filmmaking. Michel Piccoli stars as Paul, a screenwriter working on an adaptation of The Odyssey at Cinecittà; he is divided between the artistic ambitions of his director, the legendary Fritz Lang (Lang playing himself) and his insolent American producer (Jack Palance). In the opening scene Godard captures the relationship between Paul and his wife Camille (Bridget Bardot) with an authentic intimacy, whilst simultaneously mocking the producer’s demand for nudity as Camille talks in detail about her body parts. Godard is at the mischievous height of his directing powers with Le Mépris; the film is a radical meeting of commercial and subversive filmmaking, but this meeting defines the great French director best.

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