How Kim Jong-il took down coal seam gas in the inner west

Eden Faithfull and Swetha Das spoke to a filmmaker trained in North Korean propaganda

In the West, it is all too easy to associate North Korea with totalitarianism, nuclear warfare and a repressive regime. Consistent with this perception, propaganda has been wielded by

Kim Jong-un and his predecessor Kim Jong-il as a well-developed and effective tool to keep the masses in line with party policy and in adoration of their Supreme Leader.

Thousands of kilometres away in Sydney in November 2010, residents of the city’s inner west discovered that the New South Wales state government had approved an exploration license to drill for coal seam gas close to homes and schools in St Peters.

Given the insufficient risk assessment and lack of communication with local residents, many opposed the fracking plan by signing petitions, rallying the government, and protesting on the streets. This may not bear too many immediate parallels with a tyrannical regime enforced by a dictator like Kim Jong-il, but someone saw potential in Jong-il’s “supreme innovation” to confront the actions of an unresponsive government.

While heavily invested in protesting the fracking plans, director, writer and flagrant anti-capitalist Anna Broinowski finished reading Kim Jong-il’s manifesto, On Cinema and Directing, when a solution dawned on her.

“When you’re fighting a capitalist enemy on steroids, you get new weapons.” Broinowski decided that this new weapon was filmmaking, though not just any indie-enviro flick. She was going to employ the lessons she had read about and, with the help of one of North Korea’s most prominent filmmakers, to create an anti-fracking propaganda film.

Anna Broinowski is the only Western filmmaker in recent history to have gained access to the North Korean film archives. Unlike our most exotic James Bond-esque fantasies, this was not a simple task, and it certainly wasn’t a short wait. It took two years to be exact.

Broinowski was planning to create her own propaganda film in retaliation to the NSW state government’s fracking plans, and she wasn’t going to take the easy route. Broiniowski was hoping that the film would mobilise the Australian people to worship the unspoiled land in Sydney Park, where young children, just like her daughter would often play. As North Korean filmmakers are aware, propaganda has a powerful effect on viewers through the use of clear characterisation, evocative music and themes of morality.

Broinowski arrived in North Korea in July 2012, ready to learn how to create a politically powerful film about coal seam gas. Broinowski says she was initially amused by locals’ responses to her project. While explaining what coal seam gas was, she was met with bewilderment about the government’s treatment of Sydney residents. “Here are these people who we say live under this brutal regime… but they were horrified for us.”

Kim Jong-il’s use of propaganda in North Korea is nothing short of brazen. Shooting using celluloid film and primarily relying on stagnant, long shots and post-recorded sound, some of the most recent North Korean “blockbusters” resemble poorly produced spaghetti westerns.

“There is almost something magnificent about stepping back in time into a culture that has evolved without the internet,” says Broinowski.

As her film developed, Broinowski sought advice from the country’s top propagandists. Although many of the images from the North Korean films are idyllic and reminiscent of simpler times, it was difficult for local filmmakers to shift the awareness that they were indeed operating out of a totalitarian state. “[You know, North Korea has] the same number of surveillance people per citizen as the Stasi.”

The purpose of Broinowski’s foray into North Korean propaganda, however, was not to be a conduit for Western curiosity and sensationalism. The West’s manner of functioning was no different to the propagandist ideology prevalent in North Korea. “By showing an Australian audience the ham-fisted approach to propaganda by North Korea, I could show them how we are also fed propaganda on so many mainstream media outlets,” says Broinowski.

Though our politicians may have a lighter touch, Western politics is in no way immune to falling back on often bigoted rhetoric. “I think populism on both the right and the left is interesting because capitalism is broken, and people are pissed fucking off,” says Broinowski.

While it’s easy for pundits in the West to deride the oppressiveness of the North Korean regime, the information we receive is often being spun in an equally heavy-handed manner. Broinowski contends that we in the West are being fed a singular, one-dimensional image of the country. While North Korea chants its communist catch-call, and declares they must rise up against the oppressive enemy, we laugh in response. We think it is only they who live under an oppressive regime.

Richard Broinowski, former Australian ambassador to South Korea and Anna’s father, reminds us that threats by Kim Jong-il to the US are not the full story. “What the media leaves out is that he actually says more than that each time. He says ‘we will nuke you if you fire at us’.” Mr Broinowski accuses the mainstream media, notably Rupert Murdoch’s empire, of adulterating the facts about North Korea, portraying them as the instigators of international hostility.

A termination of a CSG license over Sydney was finally announced in 2015 – action that emerged as a result of the protests that first began at a grassroots level across the city. With this news in stride, Broinowski still speaks about the lessons she has learnt from her time in North Korea, with her more recent talk being at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Broinowski may have been unsuccessful in her bid to end the use of coal seam gas in Australia as a whole, though thanks to her efforts, there were small wins along the way. Sydney Park remains free of fracking, and she continues to espouse her new awareness of the power of propaganda across Australia, along with her trademark anti-capitalist spiel.

Broinowski’s escape into a disconnected world provided more than just an anti-fracking propagandist film; it was an insight into the duality of dogma and fact. “Truth is a nuanced thing. The more truth you have, the more power you have.” She recalls the words of a North Korean filmmaker about their country’s future, that could very well describe our own: “There is a seismic shift coming. Go back to Australia and tell them that.”