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Detail of a mural at the Pyongyang Art Studios. John Pavelka via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

10 Filmmaking Lessons from Kim Jong-Il

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Detail of a mural at the Pyongyang Art Studios. John Pavelka via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

North Korea is a country shrouded in mystery, somehow as intriguing as it is tragic. Reports of famine wiping out a significant portion of the country’s population in the ‘90s, a seeming disregard for anyone outside the elite in the capital city of Pyongyang, and the total suppression of information from outside sources make it a difficult place to get to know, not to mention live in. Yet the country seems enraptured by its leaders: When Kim Jong-Il died in 2011 citizens lined the streets, many weeping uncontrollably.

The Kims have a lot of tools at their disposal to help deify them, but none have harnessed it better than Kim Jong-Il. Kim was a film obsessive, the proud owner of one of the largest private film collections in the world, with reportedly over 20,000 movies—almost all of them bootlegs, since it was illegal to import western media into North Korea. He experienced the power of cinema first-hand, and knew he could exploit it for the benefit of his and his father’s regime.

Infamously, he kidnapped South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife actress Choi Eun-hui in 1978, forcing them to make North Korean propaganda films for years before their daring escape in 1986. But even before that, in 1973, Kim Jong-Il published his propaganda manifesto On the Art of the Cinema, a 300-page, quasi-impenetrable opus filled with musings about what it takes to make a great film. The book was instantly a must-read among North Korea’s filmmaking studios—meaning they were literally forced to read it, not that it was a hit—and shaped North Korean cinema for many years. It also offered some (occasionally quite obvious) lessons to filmmakers around the globe, including these:

1. “THE SEED IS THE CORE OF A LITERARY WORK.”

Cover page of the On the Art of the Cinema's English edition. Image credit: Finnusertop via Wikimedia // Public Domain

 
It might seem that talking about literature would be a bit of a sidestep for a book on filmmaking, but Kim Jong-Il dedicates the first 100 pages of his book to “Life and Literature.” He discusses literature as a source material for great cinema—combined, of course, with the great struggle and life experience of the North Korean people. In subchapters laced with clumsy metaphors, Kim likens a written work to a living thing and tells us that “in order to build the organic structure of a literary piece, it is necessary to have a clear vision of the fundamental principle which permeates all the elements of an artistic image and welds them into an integral whole.” Which, plainly speaking, means that story is everything. Without a compelling story with a clear goal (or “seed”), a film falls flat at the first hurdle.

2. “THE MOOD MUST BE EXPRESSED WELL.”

This lesson boils down to one thing: make us look good. Is the film set in the “exploitative society” of the West where “the majority of the population live in low spirits, plagued by worries and anxiety because they are poor and have no rights”? Well, make sure the mood of the scene reflects that. Irony aside, a real lesson for filmmakers here is to develop their craft, because “mood can only be correctly expressed by artists who have attained a high level of creative skill.”

3. “EACH SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC.”

Posters for movies participating at the 12th Pyongyang International Film Festival in Pyongyang. Image credit: Getty Images

 
A rookie mistake for filmmakers and screenwriters is forgetting that their scenes serve to propel the narrative forward, or to reveal more information about a character. “A film has to compress a considerable amount of narrative into a small space,” Kim points out, and meandering through a scene without any clear conflict (relating back to the “seed” from lesson one) could mean that “the film as a whole [would] have no dramatic structure, and dramatic description [would] be impossible.” (Other filmmakers might note that’s not a hard-and-fast rule—Quentin Tarantino famously plays with this idea in Pulp Fiction’s “Royale with Cheese” scene.)

4. “BEGIN ON A SMALL SCALE AND END GRANDLY.”

You could never accuse Kim of being a fan of subtlety and nuance (this, after all, is a man who claimed his birth was heralded by a double rainbow and whose favorite movies were said to be Friday the 13th and Rambo), and his musings on story arcs reflect this. “First impressions are important in a film,” the Dear Leader says, before elaborating: “if the beginning is too complicated, it will be difficult to follow the development of the story.” Solid advice: ease your audience into the narrative adventure you’re about to take them on.

What about the grand ending? Well, make sure it has meaning. Kim talks at length of grounding the story in a relatable human struggle rather than anything fantastical, and claims that “introducing some stunning occurrence or the total impact of something completely strange and unheard-of, in the hope of evoking meaningless exclamations of wonder, is a vulgarity which is incompatible with art created for the people.” That’s big talk for somebody who would go on to produce an absurd Godzilla rip-off that gained so-bad-it’s-good cult infamy.

5. “LIFE IS STRUGGLE AND STRUGGLE IS LIFE.”

Pyongyang, North Korea 
“Art presupposes life,” Kim says. “Without life there could be no artistic creation. An artistic work which does not mirror life honestly is useless.” (We’re guessing he’s not a big sci-fi guy.)

The end goal of North Korean cinema was, and is, to instill an exaggerated sense of national pride in the audience, and watching characters struggle—plus, crucially, overcome their struggles—on the big screen is one big way to create that pride. Of course, stories about overcoming struggles aren’t limited to North Korea alone (as Kurt Vonnegut demonstrates in this clip). Identifying with a lead protagonist’s struggle helps keep the audience rooting for them.

6. “IN CREATIVE WORK ONE MUST AIM HIGH.”

When Kim says “aim high” here, he’s referring more to creative standards than commercial success (ignoring the fact that state-produced films are always a commercial success in North Korea because viewing is often mandatory). According to Kim, “even if certain individual scenes are quite impressive, an able director will be concerned if the work as a whole appears vague and unconvincing” and ultimately a sincere belief in the work you’re making will help, as “the force of the passion he experiences when nurturing an excellent seed fuels his activity.”

7. "THE SECRET OF DIRECTING LIES IN EDITING."

Pyongyang, North Korea 
Again, Kim isn’t breaking any ground here—the Russian filmmakers of the early 20th century were among the first to harness the power of editing. Look no further than the Kuleshov Effect (an editing technique based on the idea than an audience will derive more meaning from two shots in a sequence than one shot shown in isolation) to see the kind of impact their work is still having on cinema today.

“Throughout the whole course of making the film, the director must constantly consider the work from the point of view of editing,” Kim says. He has a point: Considering how a scene is going to be stitched together in the edit is vital, but can easily be forgotten about on set. Kim goes on to say that the director “must always seek, by exploring new possibilities, to enhance the role played by editing.”

8. “FILMING SHOULD BE REALISTIC.”

Kim’s ideas of realism are tailored toward the camera as witness to the honorable workers’ struggle. He says that “there is nothing in society and nature, in human life or the physical world, which cannot be captured on camera,” and in doing so one can create “a rhythmical flow of imagery which will evoke a tapestry of emotions.” However, his understanding of cinematography and composition is clearly limited, with statements littered throughout the chapter such as “the camerawork of a film should portray everything clearly and concisely” and “the cameraman should portray life in a natural and realistic way”—none of which are elaborated upon.

He does, however, acknowledge that movement plays a vital role in the visual makeup of a film, explaining that shooting “should create cinematic movement by combining the movement of an object with that of the camera.” In other words, don’t just leave your camera sitting motionless on a tripod unless there’s a very good reason for it. Life, after all, rarely stands still.

9. “BEFORE ACTING [THE ACTOR] SHOULD UNDERSTAND LIFE.”

A movie poster in North Korea. Image credit: BRJ INC. via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 
When he kidnapped the director Shin Sang-Ok, one of Kim’s major complaints about North Korean film was the melodrama. He bemoaned that actors were constantly crying in the movies—and I mean really crying. Which is why he emphasizes the importance of a non-theatrical realism: “The actor should not ‘act’ before the camera but behave as he would in real life,” Kim instructs, before launching into a lengthy diatribe about how the actor and character should become one and the same. (One wonders if he’d appreciate Jared Leto’s method acting.)

10. “MUSIC SHOULD BE APPROPRIATE TO THE SCENES."

This is another lesson that seems so painfully obvious it’s hard to believe Kim managed to spin it out to seven pages, but here we are. Using the wrong music is still a mistake you see today—filmmaker and YouTuber Darious Britt touches on recent examples of it in this 2015 video. One key mistake: You can’t just throw a piece of dramatic music over your scenes to add drama if there’s none there already. “Only when film music both conforms with the spirit of the times and suits the specific situation depicted can it pluck at the people’s heartstrings,” Kim says.

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10 Surprising Facts About The Babadook
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IFC Films

In 2014, The Babadook came out of nowhere and scared audiences across the globe. Written and directed by Aussie Jennifer Kent, and based on her short film Monster, The Babadook is about a widow named Amelia (played by Kent’s drama schoolmate Essie Davis) who has trouble controlling her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who thinks there’s a monster living in their house. Amelia reads Samuel a pop-up book, Mister Babadook, and Samuel manifests the creature into a real-life monster. The Babadook may be the villain, but the film explores the pitfalls of parenting and grief in an emotional way. 

“I never approached this as a straight horror film,” Kent told Complex. “I always was drawn to the idea of grief, and the suppression of that grief, and the question of, how would that affect a person? ... But at the core of it, it’s about the mother and child, and their relationship.”

Shot on a $2 million budget, the film grossed more than $10.3 million worldwide and gained an even wider audience via streaming networks. Instead of creating Babadook out of CGI, a team generated the images in-camera, inspired by the silent films of Georges Méliès and Lon Chaney. Here are 10 things you might not have known about The Babadook (dook, dook).

1. THE NAME “BABADOOK” WAS EASY FOR A CHILD TO INVENT.

Jennifer Kent told Complex that some people thought the creature’s name sounded “silly,” which she agreed with. “I wanted it to be like something a child could make up, like ‘jabberwocky’ or some other nonsensical name,” she explained. “I wanted to create a new myth that was just solely of this film and didn’t exist anywhere else.”

2. JENNIFER KENT WAS WORRIED PEOPLE WOULD JUDGE THE MOTHER.

Amelia isn’t the best mother in the world—but that’s the point. “I’m not a parent,” Kent told Rolling Stone, “but I’m surrounded by friends and family who are, and I see it from the outside … how parenting seems hard and never-ending.” She thought Amelia would receive “a lot of flak” for her flawed parenting, but the opposite happened. “I think it’s given a lot of women a sense of reassurance to see a real human being up there,” Kent said. “We don’t get to see characters like her that often.”

3. KENT AND ESSIE DAVIS TONED DOWN THE CONTENT FOR THE KID.

Noah Wiseman was six years old when he played Samuel. Kent and Davis made sure he wasn’t present for the more horrific scenes, like when Amelia tells Samuel she wishes he was the one who died, not her husband. “During the reverse shots, where Amelia was abusing Sam verbally, we had Essie yell at an adult stand-in on his knees,” Kent told Film Journal. “I didn’t want to destroy a childhood to make this film—that wouldn’t be fair.”

Kent explained a “kiddie version” of the plot to Wiseman. “I said, ‘Basically, Sam is trying to save his mother and it’s a film about the power of love.’”

4. THE FILM IS ALSO ABOUT “FACING OUR SHADOW SIDE.”

IFC Films

Kent told Film Journal that “The Babadook is a film about a woman waking up from a long, metaphorical sleep and finding that she has the power to protect herself and her son.” She noted that everybody has darkness to face. “Beyond genre and beyond being scary, that’s the most important thing in the film—facing our shadow side.”

5. THE FILM SCARED THE HELL OUT OF THE DIRECTOR OF THE EXORCIST.

In an interview with Uproxx, William Friedkin—director of The Exorcist—said The Babadook was one of the best and scariest horror films he’d ever seen. He especially liked the emotional aspect of the film. “It’s not only the simplicity of the filmmaking and the excellence of the acting not only by the two leads, but it’s the way the film works slowly but inevitably on your emotions,” he said.

6. AN ART DEPARTMENT ASSISTANT SCORED THE ROLE AS THE BABADOOK.

Tim Purcell worked in the film’s art department but then got talked into playing the titular character after he acted as the creature for some camera tests. “They realized they could save some money, and have me just be the Babadook, and hence I became the Babadook,” Purcell told New York Magazine. “In terms of direction, it was ‘be still a lot,’” he said.

7. THE MOVIE BOMBED IN ITS NATIVE AUSTRALIA.

Even though Kent shot the film in Adelaide, Australians didn’t flock to the theaters; it grossed just $258,000 in its native country. “Australians have this [built-in] aversion to seeing Australian films,” Kent told The Cut. “They hardly ever get excited about their own stuff. We only tend to love things once everyone else confirms they’re good … Australian creatives have always had to go overseas to get recognition. I hope one day we can make a film or work of art and Australians can think it’s good regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.”

8. YOU CAN OWN A MISTER BABADOOK BOOK (BUT IT WILL COST YOU). 

IFC Films

In 2015, Insight Editions published 6200 pop-up books of Mister Babadook. Kent worked with the film’s illustrator, Alexander Juhasz, who created the book for the movie. He and paper engineer Simon Arizpe brought the pages to life for the published version. All copies sold out but you can find some Kent-signed ones on eBay, going for as much as $500.

9. THE BABADOOK IS A GAY ICON.

It started at the end of 2016, when a Tumblr user started a jokey thread about how he thought the Babadook was gay. “It started picking up steam within a few weeks,” Ian, the Tumblr user, told New York Magazine, “because individuals who I presume are heterosexual kind of freaked out over the assertion that a horror movie villain would identify as queer—which I think was the actual humor of the post, as opposed to just the outright statement that the Babadook is gay.” In June, the Babadook became a symbol for Gay Pride month. Images of the character appeared everywhere at this year's Gay Pride Parade in Los Angeles.

10. DON'T HOLD YOUR BREATH FOR A SEQUEL.

Kent, who owns the rights to The Babadook, told IGN that, despite the original film's popularity, she's not planning on making any sequels. “The reason for that is I will never allow any sequel to be made, because it’s not that kind of film,” she said. “I don’t care how much I’m offered, it’s just not going to happen.”

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15 Fascinating Facts About Amelia Earhart
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Amelia Earhart was a pioneer, a legend, and a mystery. To celebrate what would be her 120th birthday, we've uncovered 15 things you might not know about the groundbreaking aviator.

1. THE FIRST TIME SHE SAW AN AIRPLANE, SHE WASN'T IMPRESSED.

In Last Flight, a collection of diary entries published posthumously, Earhart recalled feeling unmoved by "a thing of rusty wire and wood" at the Iowa State Fair in 1908. It wasn't until years later that she discovered her passion for aviation, when she worked as a nurse's aide at Toronto's Spadina Military Hospital. She and some friends would spend time at hangars and flying fields, talking to pilots and watching aerial shows. Earhart didn't actually get on a plane herself until 1920, and even then she was just a passenger.

2. SHE WAS A GOOD STUDENT WITH NO PATIENCE FOR SCHOOL.

After working with the Voluntary Aid Detachment in Toronto, Earhart took pre-med classes at Columbia University in 1919. She made good grades, but dropped out after just a year. Earhart re-enrolled at Columbia in 1925 and left school again. She took summer classes at Harvard, but gave up on higher education for good after she didn't get a scholarship to MIT.

3. ANOTHER PIONEERING FEMALE AVIATOR TAUGHT EARHART HOW TO FLY.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Neta Snook was the first woman to run her own aviation business and commercial airfield. She gave Earhart flying lessons at Kinner Field near Long Beach, California in 1921, reportedly charging $1 in Liberty Bonds for every minute they spent in the air.

4. EARHART BOUGHT HER FIRST PLANE WITHIN SIX MONTHS OF HER FIRST FLYING LESSON.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

She named it The Canary. The used yellow Kinner Airster biplane was the second one ever built. Earhart paid $2000 for it, despite Snook's opinion that it was underpowered, overpriced, and too difficult for a beginner to land.

5. AMY EARHART ENCOURAGED HER DAUGHTER'S PASSION. HER FATHER, ON THE OTHER HAND, WAS AFRAID OF FLYING.

Earhart's mom used some of her inheritance to pay for The Canary. She was a bit of an adventurer herself: the first woman to ever climb Pikes Peak in Colorado.

6. EARHART HAD A LOT OF ODD JOBS.

In addition to volunteering as a nurse's aide, Earhart also worked early jobs as a telephone operator and tutor. Earhart was a social worker at Denison House in Boston when she was invited to fly across the Atlantic for the first time (as a passenger) in 1928. At the height of her career, Earhart spent time making speeches, writing articles, and providing career counseling at Purdue University's Department of Aeronautics. Oh, and flying around the world.

7. SHE WASN'T SURE ABOUT MARRIAGE, BUT SHE DEFINITELY BELIEVED IN PRE-NUPS.

When promoter George Putnam contacted Earhart about flying across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928, it was her first big break ... and the beginning of their love story. The two began a working relationship, which soon turned into attraction. When Putnam's marriage to Dorothy Binney fell apart, he eventually proposed to Earhart. She said yes, albeit reluctantly.

Earhart wasn't worried about safeguarding financial assets so much as she wanted the two of them to maintain separate identities. Earhart asked Putnam to agree to a trial marriage. If they weren't happy after a year, they'd be free to go their separate ways, no hard feelings. He agreed. They lived happily until her disappearance.

8. SHE WROTE ABOUT FLYING FOR COSMOPOLITAN.

In 1928, Earhart was appointed Cosmopolitan's Aviation Editor. Her 16 published articles—among them "Shall You Let Your Daughter Fly?" and "Why Are Women Afraid to Fly?"—recounted her adventures and encouraged other women to fly, even if they just did so commercially. (Commercial flights date back to 1914, but they wouldn't really take off until after World War II.)

9. FIRST LADY ELEANOR ROOSEVELT WAS SO INSPIRED BY EARHART THAT SHE SIGNED UP FOR FLYING LESSONS.

The two became friends in 1932. Roosevelt got a student permit and a physical examination, but never followed through with her plan.

10. EARHART WAS THE FIRST WOMAN TO GET A PILOT'S LICENSE FROM THE NATIONAL AERONAUTIC ASSOCIATION (NAA).

That was in 1923, when pilots and aircrafts weren't legally required to be licensed. Earhart was the sixteenth woman to get licensed by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), which was required to set flight records. Still, the FAI didn't maintain women's records until 1928.

11. SHE ACCOMPLISHED A LOT OF "FIRSTS."

Earhart eventually became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger (1928) and then solo (1932) and nonstop from coast to coast (1932) as a pilot. She also set records, period: Earhart was the first person to ever fly solo from Honolulu to Oakland, Los Angeles to Mexico City, and Mexico City to Newark, all in 1935.

What do John Glenn, George H.W. Bush, and Amelia Earhart have in common? They all earned an Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross. But only Earhart was the first woman—and one of few civilians—to do so.

12. SHE WAS ONE OF THE FIRST CELEBRITIES TO LAUNCH A CLOTHING LINE.

Amelia Earhart Fashions were affordable separates sold exclusively at Macy's and Marshall Field's. The line's dresses, blouses, pants, suits, and hats were made of cotton and parachute silk and featured aviation-inspired details, like propeller-shaped buttons. Earhart studied sewing as a girl and actually made her own samples.

13. THE U.S. GOVERNMENT SPENT $4 MILLION SEARCH FOR EARHART.

At the time, it was the most expensive air and sea search in history. Earhart's plane disappeared July 2, 1937. The official search ended a little over two weeks later on July 19. Putnam then financed a private search, chartering boats to the Phoenix Islands, Christmas Island, Fanning Island, the Gilbert Islands, and the Marshall Islands.

14. THE SEARCH ISN'T OVER.

There are several theories about what happened to Earhart's plane during her last flight. Most people believe she ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Others believe she landed on an island and died of thirst, starvation, injury, or at the hands of Japanese soldiers in Saipan. In 1970, one man even claimed that Earhart was alive and well and living a secret life in New Jersey.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has explored the theory that Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan lived as castaways before dying on Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro, in the western Pacific. Over the years, they've found a few potential artifacts, including evidence of campfire sites, pieces of Plexiglas, and an empty jar of the brand of freckle cream that Earhart used.

In early July 2017, a photo surfaced that seemed to confirm the theory that Earhart and Noonan crashed and were captured by Japanese soldiers, but that photo was quickly debunked.

15. TODAY, ANOTHER AMELIA EARHART IS MAKING HISTORY.

In 2014, another pilot named Amelia Earhart took to the skies to set a world record. The then-31-year-old California native became the youngest woman to fly 24,300 miles around the world in a single-engine plane. Her namesake never completed the journey, but the younger Earhart landed safely in Oakland on July 11, 2014. We think "Lady Lindy" would be proud.

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