The release of Juche Strong, my debut documentary on the North Korean propaganda apparatus, coincided nicely with an acute uptick in public fascination with the country. The film premiered in mid-March, right at the apex of the media swirl generated by a new round of bellicose rhetoric and military mobilization from North Korea’s ruling regime.
Obviously, this cross-branding wasn’t planned. But I’ve spent the bulk of my professional career in corporate communications, and I would have been forced to direct some highly unflattering questions at myself if I couldn’t take advantage of such a serendipitous news cycle. I did a bunch of interviews, packed a couple public screenings, was noted in the Economist, and even got on BBC World News. But through it all, I found myself experiencing an odd and unexpected sensation of insecurity.
Well, maybe “insecurity” isn’t precisely the right word. For the first time in my life I was being presented as an expert. I was speaking to audiences that trusted me to provide genuine insight into a notoriously opaque country. And, naturally, while I think Juche Strong has some original and important things to say about how North Korea has avoided collapse, the film has a limited focus. I’m not personally an expert.
I’ve learned, though, filmmakers are constantly presented with ego-titillating opportunities to overextend beyond justified claims of expertise. But right behind “genetically modified super-genius sharks” on my worst fears list is becoming a willing participant in the media’s perpetual pontification machine.
All of which inspires me to ask myself and my fellow aspiring documentarians a question that may well be preposterously pretentious, preposterously boring, or both, but here it goes: What exactly is our proper role in the national discourse?
I have a quarter-baked theory. Polemical documentarians should do two things: synthesize existing insights from reliable experts and then translate those keys ideas into emotionally compelling art through the tools of cinema.
On a less self-indulgent note, I also found that releasing my first film had the unexpected effect of deepening what I’d assumed was already a maximally deep love of movies.
The proliferation of mobile media devices is terrific for all the obvious reasons, but I’ve always attached a special sacredness to the communal act of watching a film in a theater. The uniquely edifying uplift of that experience is what inspired me to pursue filmmaking in the first place.
This year, I learned what it feels like to be on the creator side of the relationship. I’ve had four public screenings. And the sensation of sitting in a packed house (typically in the back, nursing the standard liquid treatments for nerves) and watching my vision roll into my fellow human beings’ brains in real-time—well…it’s just astonishingly awesome. And I’ve already made a point of storing the residue of that sensation deep in my grey matter for emergency nourishment next time I’m stuck in one of the decidedly less sacred steps of the filmmaking process.