“Art and literature are important activities which are indispensable to a fully human life. Food, clothing, and housing are the essential material conditions for human existence, but man is not satisfied with these alone. The freer man is from the fetters of nature and society and from worries over food, clothing and housing, the greater his need for art and literature. Life without art and literature is unimaginable.”
The book ‘On the Art of the Cinema’ provides an overview of the views of Kim Jong Il on the goals and purpose of the creative arts in the DPRK, the organisational and political aspects of creative projects, and technical aspects of film making (e.g. styles of directing and acting, and the use of music and props). Each chapter contains an introductory quote from Kim Il Sung, a reminder to readers that when book was allegedly written (1973) Kim Jong Il was beginning the task of deifying his father through the development of a personality cult worthy of his similarly flamboyant friends Ceausescu and Mao.
What does the book tell us about Kim Jong Il’s views about the creative arts?
For Kim Jong Il the purpose of art is to educate the people about the philosophy of Juche. Juche is the DPRK-spawned philosophy of self-reliance and independence. He believed that artists should focus on depicting real lives lived in realistic situations. Realism was to be bonded with the task of political education to form a ‘Realism with Juche characteristics’ style of storytelling, where the lead characters are a stereotype of the ideal worker in the eyes of the Party.
Kim Jong Il criticises literature that tells the story of “socialist economic production” rather than the stories of the producers themselves. A substantial body of literature came out of Stalinist Soviet Russia that was focused on the value of production and engineering, the “Boy Meets Tractor” brand of socialist propaganda. This contrasts with the style of propaganda promoted by Kim Jong Il, which focuses on addressing the ideological education of the workers rather than on technical progress. Put differently, in Soviet propaganda the tractor is more important than the boy, whereas for Kim the boy is more important than the tractor.
A clear relationship must be present between Party political workers and other characters in cinema or literature; the Party must be personally relevant rather than an abstract player. The Party should be an actor in everyday life that focuses on developing the working class into a class of spirited and ideologically educated revolutionaries. Kim Jong Il warned filmmakers to avoid falling into the trap of thinking films should all aim to be grand epics. Rather, they should make films in which the personal relationships between the characters and the development of their political consciousness occurs in a naturalistic setting. He believed that political themes should be expressed “through the artistic structure rather than through direct political commentary by the writer” rather than cheating by simply having the narrator tell the audience what to think. The audience should learn by observing rich and varied examples, which requires writers and directors to have a comprehensive understanding of Party ideology in order to avoid the mistake of creating one-dimensional set pieces based on simplistic party slogans.
In addition to being a source of socialist ideological education for the masses, Kim Jong Il urges filmmaker to highlight the uniqueness of the Korean people. This ties in with the underlying but fundamental racial aspect to the Juche philosophy. Two clear examples are provided with reference to film making. One is the advantage of making films with Korean people, who are especially beautiful: “The characteristically photogenic face is a typical Korean face, in which a noble spirit and balanced features form a perfect harmony with a fine personality.” The second is with regard to the artistic history and culture of their nation:
“From olden times, our people have lived in a beautiful land of golden tapestry, have demonstrated resourcefulness and wisdom and an unusually highly developed aesthetic sense. Throughout their long history of five thousand years, our people have developed a brilliant national culture and created a variety of beautiful national forms of art.”
Writing about past does however have its limits. He stresses that writers should focus on aspects of the past in line with contemporary sensibilities. This doesn’t mean that they should distort the past but rather be selective about what’s displayed. Writers should, he said, focus on aspects of the Korean historical narrative that don’t conflict with the worldview of the Party.
Ensuring that a film is made in an ideologically correct manner is primarily the job of the director. Kim Jong Il says that people can’t make an ideological sound film unless they have a strong understanding of Party ideology, and it is the job of the director to ensure the ideological education of the crew. A production should go beyond being transformative for the consumers; it should also be a politically transformative experience for the participants.
According to Kim Jong Il directors in a socialist country like the DPRK have greater freedom for artistic expression than those who work in a capitalist society, who he says are constrained by the movie studios and financiers who wield control of the capital required to make films. This, he says, contrasts to the freedom enjoyed by directors in socialist countries who are instead answerable to the Party and the people. In his view, decisions about a production should be made collectively amongst the creative workers involved, such as the assistant directors and the writers, as this is one of the ways that the director can help to ensure that their work is in line with the artistic tastes and ideological needs of the working class. A strong ethos of collective decision making, combined with a healthy ideological education and awareness, allow the director to work comfortably within the context of a state-owned and operated production house as their work should as a result reflect the needs and tastes of the ideologically active working class of which they themselves were a part.
It will likely never be known how much of the content of the book is directly attributable to the Dear Leader himself. After his defection the former chief ideologue of the Party, Hwang Jang Yop, was to say that Kim had a short attention span and a laziness that calls into question his involvement in the writing of the text. That he was credited as the author suggests however that he at least generally approved of the content. And the style of writing is certainly what one would expect from someone obsessed with being seen as the preeminent font of knowledge. It is painfully repetitive and the writing style turgid. Self-evident observations are laboured as if they are pregnant with extraordinary meaning. At times the book reads as though the utterings recorded by apparatchiks following him around as he gave ‘administrative guidance’ have been compiled into 329 pages of thought bubbles. These traits combine to make it a boring tomb to slog through, which is somewhat ironic given that it is ostensibly a guide to producing engaging creative and popular work.