Party Favor: The Films of Jim Finn


In his typically unclassifiable body of work, which includes a series of very homemade shorts and three feature-length “re-creations” (as well as a host of extracurricular activities that include teaching at Bard College, becoming a father, and hand-knitting pillows of Communist heroes), Jim Finn has arrived as a wayward visionary whose risible and plangent faux films can best be described as sublimely pathetic. In Finn’s hands, cinematic manipulation is less an act of deliberate subversion than an organic play between personal and political cultural effects (as well as whatever and whomever he capriciously enlists). His films are like anomalous inside jokes that deceptively partake of broader worldviews, in which rodents skimpering before a crude scrim of found footage might become a symbol of New World capitalism (wustenspringmaus, 2002) in its tireless expansion. Finn’s follow-up to his cult-credible Communist cosmonaut romance Interkosmos (2006) finds him in equally insular (and pinko) territory, but decidely more earthbound. La Trinchera Luminosa del Presidente Gonzalo (The Shining Trench of Chairman Gonzalo) is an improbable re-enactment of daily life in a Peruvian prison, circa 1989, among women inmates, combatant followers of Abimael Guzman’s Maoist revolutionary-terrorist group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). Grounded in historical record, the film nevertheless reflects the director’s desire for “the bootleg video that I would have wanted to find in a market in Lima.”

In his latest, The Juche Idea, Finn has unexpectedly tapped the lurid curiosity for that most foreign of lands, North Korea, conjuring a bizarre milieu of an art-farm residency and a South Korean filmmaker ostensibly set on invigorating the native film industry. In a paradoxical twist that may be part of Finn’s ongoing strategy of revolutionary humor, it is his very oeuvre that has come to embody the notion of Juche, of supreme self-reliance.

Keyframe: Kim Jong-il is dead. Your film, The Juche Idea, is ‘based’—and I mean that as loosely as possible—on his father Kim Il-sung’s political and cultural philosophy of ‘self reliance.’ Prescience or luck?

Jim Finn: Well there’s been a huge interest in North Korea in the last few years based mostly on the fact that everyone realized that there is a strange frozen-in-time Stalinist redoubt in Asia. The mass-movement dances and insane, over-the-top proclamations of a cult-state filled with leftist jibber-jabber are pretty interesting.

What’s really insane is that the father, Kim Il-sung, has become the eternal president, a god-like figure that can control weather and magpie movements. Kim Jong-il was the one who consolidated his own power by building a cult of personality in the High Stalinist tradition. He took it farther when the old man died by making him a god. If his son wants to continue living in luxury, he will have to make his father part of the pantheon.

I was interested in Kim Jong-il partly because he’s a nutty pseudo-leftist dictator and partly because of his interest in film and propaganda. He wrote On the Art of the Cinema, which is the one and only film school textbook in North Korea.

Keyframe: Your film is apparently based on a true incident, of a South Korean filmmaker who was somehow ‘re-purposed’ to North Korea, though clearly you have taken artistic liberties with this conceit. Audiences unfamiliar with your work may be surprised to encounter just what your aesthetic is like. In other words—and I’m sure you get this question often: Is this for real?!

Finn: Shin Sang-ok is the director whom the film’s lead character is very loosely based on. He was a South Korean director who was kidnapped along with his actress wife Choi Eun-hee to reinvigorate the film industry in North Korea. He made Pulgasari, the anti-capitalist and anti-feudalist Godzilla.

Conceptually I wanted the North Korean film industry to invite a video artist to reinvigorate their video art/film industry. I created an enclave of international and North Korean artists called the Juche Art Residency. Juche (CHOO-chay) means basically self-reliance. It came about when North Korea felt squeezed between a hostile US/South Korea alliance, a detente Soviet Union and a nutty Cultural Revolution China. Really it’s the cult of personality around the Kim family. I wanted Yoon Jung to be a radical young artist who was making strange ironic editing decisions to bring the propaganda into the 20th century. But there’s also a bit of a mystery because we don’t really know if she is still making work or where she is. So the whole movie is made up of clips of her work along with interview footage from a Bulgarian filmmaker visiting the art-farm residency.

Keyframe: So our film questions whether this invigoration was successful? And exactly how did you appropriate the footage of vintage North Korean cinema?

Finn: Right, well really you can’t go too nutty on the system. It’s an extremely closed and archaic system that is kind of feudal in its utter disregard for the majority of the populace. As far as the footage, I found a store on eBay that had DVD-R’s of North Korean movies. It appeared that the movies were 16mm English subtitled prints (the subtitles were burned on the film), then transferred to VHS, then dubbed to DVD-R in China. The final step was to put a thick rubber sticker on the DVD-R that will get stuck in a laptop. Very annoying. If you order enough of the movies, they will include the pins that everyone wears in North Korea. I used those in my movie as well.

Keyframe: Your films are all handcrafted, almost in the absurd. Where was The Juche Idea shot? And are these actors your friends, as in your previous films?

Finn: Juche was shot in upstate New York (Buffalo, Ithaca area, Troy) and western Massachusetts. The film is populated with friends and people who were around me. Troy has a Bulgarian contingent, which is why I cast Daniela, a Bulgarian artist. Oleg, the balding Russian who pretty much steals the show, was also living there. He didn’t speak English. His Bulgarian wife translated his dialogue, which he approved (he has radical politics); then she transliterated the English into Cyrillic onto a laptop that I held behind the camera. After a funny take, we would laugh and he would ask his wife in Russian what he just said. Then he’d laugh too.

It’s important to make my films as cheaply and conveniently as possible. Despite all the wonderful pronouncements of how video and digital has democratized filmmaking etc…… it’s bullshit. It is certainly cheaper to make your film now but you still need to get it out into the world and ideally at least make your money back. And nobody wants to pay for anything and distributors will promise the world but if your film isn’t making a bunch of money, tough, it becomes a niche item. That’s the system we’re in and I don’t have any illusions about it. So if I want to make movies that use found footage or if I choose to cross fiction with nonfiction in a fucked-up way, then I have to deal with the penalty of that: being broke. So I make ‘handcrafted’ cheap-ass films. I appreciate that word by the way. I only quote it to highlight it not to mock you.

In film… you can create an alternate universe that looks like a communist system but has passed through one of those STAR TREK dimension shifts that gave Spock a goatee and Kirk a hot girlfriend.

Keyframe: The legacy of Communism is of course the source of so much cultural irony now, which you’ve mined in a totally unique way, mocking to a degree and yet quite earnest in its way. Your feature films are all situated in ideological communities but they imply a sense of homeland insecurity in the U.S., built on presidential hubris and woeful foreign policy….

Finn: I think people imagine that I have a whole house filled with Soviet art and North Korean posters. I do have a lot of those things that I mostly keep in boxes of props. I am interested in American propaganda, power and culture. But I want to see it from outside the U.S. and preferably from outside capitalism, which is getting harder and harder to do. As for the politics in my films, they have been denounced by ultra-leftists as going after the easy target of Stalinist communism and by rightists as an aesthetic that glorifies communism. That doesn’t make me some centrist though. Obviously I am making comparisons between a closed, cult-like state and a neo-liberal capitalist democracy like the U.S.

Keyframe: How, and when, did Communism come to you as a source of so much curiosity? You use irony but clearly toward different ends, to the extent that your films are often quite funny but politically they are frightening.

Finn: Our propaganda is so much more advanced. I mean a movie like Ninotchka, which inspired the love story in Interkosmos, is, on the one hand, mocking Stalinism in a simple romantic comedy way. But on the other hand, it’s saying, ‘If your ideals have been corrupted by sinister people and a crappy exploitive system, then the best solution is to move to Paris with a rich guy and buy hats.’ That film had brilliant lines like ‘There are fewer but better Russian comrades.’ But certainly the propaganda of American movies is the happy ending or the tied-up ending or loads of other variations.

What’s amazing to me is that Americans can laugh their asses off about Kim Jong-il, and his obsession with movies and brandy and whatnot. But we ignore completely our own neo-liberal Kim Il-sung: Ronald Reagan. He built his own avuncular cult of personality in the movies and commercials, then hardened it up on the right-wing speech and radio circuit. Then you have bloody counter-insurgency wars, an assault on the entitlement state, which he mixed up with his hatred of communism. Everyone in the mainstream news media acknowledges him as a great President. That’s insane. So I include references to Reagan in The Juche Idea, which is one of the things that makes my movies different.

As for the politics in my films, they have been denounced by ultra-leftists as going after the easy target of Stalinist communism and by rightists as an aesthetic that glorifies communism. That doesn’t make me some centrist though.

Building a film from within a communist system that looks out on capitalism gives me the freedom (a capitalist buzzword as you know) to make the kind of movies I want to make. All three films in my communist trilogy have unseen editor-characters who are making decisions on what kind of documentary to make. The decisions are based on ideology and audience just like all movies, but by setting the films within a High Stalinist low-budget experimental studio structure I can push the characters and the critique in new ways. These are studios by the way that I would like to run. I think some nutty state should let me have free rein of their archives and cast and crew. I am still waiting, so in the meantime I’ll just make it up.

Keyframe: I’m incredulous about the showmanship of the great ideologues, even our own. The pageantry. The fervor. But historically it’s not a joke. That’s what makes Andrei Ujica’s Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu so haunting…

Finn: One thing about the communist pageantry is that it actually starts to get boring as hell. You can watch it for about the length of that movie. But if you keep watching it over and over, it is mind numbing. I think that’s why people from the former Eastern Bloc can’t understand what’s so fascinating about it to us. I wanted a strange socialist poetics to invade the system. I studied poetry years ago but couldn’t make it as a poet. The world is so isolating and academic in the U.S. But in film, you can bring it in through characters and voiceover and with images and just create an alternate universe that looks like a communist system but has passed through one of those Star Trek dimension shifts that gave Spock a goatee and Kirk a hot girlfriend.

Keyframe: Ha! Concerning your poetics, by now you’ve authored what should be a collection of aphorisms: ‘Making artist films in a capitalist country is like building a home-made floating barge in a bay….’ I could go on with these…

Finn: Right, well that particular quote is the brutal reality of making films. It’s charming and everyone loves that you’re doing it, but you need to advance and move on to bigger and better things. If you stay at the same level, you are suspect. Not as bad as a hack artist, but a middling one who fit in with whatever time you were making the films but couldn’t move on. Now once you earn your stripes as a has-been, you are ready for the redemptive comeback.

I like characters that think in a direct and somewhat black-and-white way. Most of my characters aren’t filled with capitalistic self-doubt. They know they have the language and ideology to take over whatever they’re doing. They have radicalized their everyday language and metaphors so poetry becomes a weapon. That is basically the opposite of what we think of as poetry in this country—something to do right out of college while on a train in some exotic land or stuck in a Republican state.

Keyframe: ‘Bureaucratic capitalism: A wet slug to be drowned in egg shells and beer.’

Finn: Exactly.

Keyframe: You pen these prolifically.

Finn: Uh oh, I’ve got a nutty toddler trying to get into my studio, so I think we’ll have to wrap this up.

Keyframe: Okay, briefly then; you’re making a film about liberation theologist Franz Hinkelammert?

Finn: I am finishing up this documentary called Sunday School with Franz Hinkelammert. He is a German-born radical economist and liberation theologian who now lives in Costa Rica but was kicked out of Chile after the Pinochet coup. The movie is about the marriage of conservative Christianity and neo-liberal politics in the U.S. and Chile as well as the use and misuse of Utopia. I filmed in former concentration camp black sites in Chile and Argentina as well as two CIA black sites in Poland. There’s found footage and even a short musical number so the film still has a look and feel of one of my movies even though it is nonfiction and I didn’t write it.

Keyframe: Lastly, on being categorized as experimental: So much in your films is derived from the detritus of pop culture, however exotic….

Finn: I think it’s experimental because the structures are experimental. I mean I’ve also been categorized in mockumentary or short comedy or political film. Experimental, of course, is a ghetto. My work isn’t totally embraced by experimental cinema purists because it has the quality that makes the audience like it or at least like parts of it and laugh and whatnot, which could be seen as pandering. Another problem with categorization for me is the political one because when you think of political films, you think of The Battle of Algiers or 89 percent of Sundance docs. The politics in films are not thesis politics. And if the films are categorized as comedies, and when people are actually expected to think about the narrative and language, they get annoyed. Basically we all harbor this doubt about artists that they are being obscure to hide the fact that ……Oh this sounds annoying….I’m rambling now.

Maybe I should sum up with some charming bullshit?

Jay Kuehner is a Seattle-based writer and contributor to Cinema Scope, Senses of Cinema, and the Northwest Film Forum’s Hot Splice.

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