The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents March 2008 Return to Table of Contents
Man in the Chair
Crossing the Line
Page 2
DVD Playback
David Watkin
ASC Close-Up
Documentary filmmakers are granted rare access to shoot a project that provides glimpses of life in the closed-off society.

When U.S. Army Pfc. Joseph Dresnok defected to North Korea in 1962, he walked across a minefield on the DMZ and surrendered to a passing enemy patrol. More than 40 years later, British filmmakers sought to interview Dresnok for the documentary Crossing the Line, but found that the task of entering the isolated police state was far more complex. 

“From actually hearing about Dresnok’s story, which was around 2002, to getting into North Korea and doing some very preliminary filming in June 2004, we had two years of on-and-off discussions about whether the story was true, whether there were Americans living in North Korea,” explains director/producer Daniel Gordon. “Who was alive? Who was dead? What were they doing? Can we film them?” 

The answer to the last question was ultimately “yes” because of the rapport Gordon had built with North Korean authorities while filming two previous documentaries in the one-party state: The Game of Their Lives (2002), about the North Korean soccer team’s upstart victory over Italy in the 1966 World Cup, and A State of Mind (2004), which follows two schoolgirls as they prepare for “Mass Games,” a patriotic gymnastics exposition that extols the virtues of the Communist state. 

North Korea is a closed society controlled by the military, with no free press or fair elections. Citizens are assigned jobs by the government, which controls almost all economic activity. Visits by outsiders are strictly controlled and monitored, and Western film crews are rarely granted access. “You’ve got to expect the unexpected,” says Gordon. “You’ve got to be ready for anything to be opened up or shut down at any moment … [and] you just won’t understand why decisions have been reached as they’ve been reached.” 

Gordon and his crew brought their own equipment to North Korea because local film technology was not compatible with the needs of a modern documentary shoot. “As far as equipment goes, they film on 35mm, and we were filming on DigiBeta for the first two films and hi-def video for Crossing the Line,” says Gordon. 

Nick Bennett, the cinematographer on Crossing the Line, shot about 100 hours of footage to make the 91-minute doc. “Most of it was shot on a Sony F900,” he recalls. “We shot some of it on a Sony H750, but that didn’t last too long because we fell out of love with it fairly quickly. The F900 is a much nicer-looking image.” A Sony Z1 was used for second-unit work. 

“I used standard Canon lenses,” notes Bennett. “When I needed to light, I used Kino Flos, but much of the film was shot with available light.” Gordon adds, “In North Korea, the electricity isn’t necessarily on, and when it’s on, it isn’t necessarily constant, so we tried to use available light wherever we could.” He carried batteries at all times and hooked into mains when possible. 

Many of the gear decisions were dictated by weight and space. “We had to keep the package fairly movable,” says Bennett. “We had to be able to lug it around between myself and the soundman because we wanted to keep a small footprint. We didn’t want to turn up with lots and lots of people.” 

In addition to Gordon, Bennett, soundman Stevie Haywood and co-producer Nicholas Bonner, the crew included one or two North Koreans assigned to the shoot by the Ministry of Culture. Gordon notes, “Your immediate suspicion is that they’re government plants — security people pretending to be film people. But the longer you work with people, you tend to find out what they are and what they’re not, and the people we worked with day by day were absolutely film people.” 

“They basically took it upon themselves that they were going to work for us and get us the access that we wanted, whatever that took and whatever personal risks that took on their part,” he continues. “Had it all gone wrong, there would have been quite nasty consequences for everyone involved.” 

The filmmaking process involved many nights of discussions with the North Koreans about access or other issues concerning the next day’s shooting. The topics to be discussed with Dresnok were provided to the North Koreans in advance, with the understanding that new topics would arise over the course of the interview. The minders occasionally reviewed the dailies. “There was never an occasion when they said, ‘No, you can’t shoot that,’” Bennett recalls. “There were lots of occasions where they’d hem and haw as to whether they wanted us to film something, and we shot it, and they had a look at it afterwards and said, ‘Yeah, it’s fine.’ You’re not always aware of what they’re looking for.” 

In addition to the North Koreans’ sensitivity to the manner in which statues of their leaders were filmed — shots could not start on the feet, which are considered dirty in many Asian cultures — the minders were also concerned with cinematic atmospherics. But in the end, they allowed the crew to shoot what they needed. “You want to get a bit of color, and you want to film the old people and the gnarly faces,” says Bennett. “Occasionally, they would question why we were filming certain things, but again, over the time we’ve been filming there, those misunderstandings seem to have diminished. They know the kind of material we need to make the film, and [they know] it might not always be the Disneyland version.” 

“No footage was ever taken away from us,” adds Bennett. “We came away with everything we shot.”

The North Koreans had no hand in the edit, either. Gordon says the final cut was not shown to North Korean officials until after it was screened at the Busan Film Festival in South Korea. 

Although North Korea is known for staging events for the benefit of foreigners, the filmmakers maintain that through the course of shooting their three films, they were able to capture an authentic picture of Pyongyang, the capital city. “It was a struggle on the first two films because whenever we’d turn up at various locations, [what was happening] seemed very choreographed — lots of people in the national costume and that kind of thing,” recalls Bennett. “But when you’re following people down the street, there comes a point where the whole thing becomes too big to choreograph. Inevitably, you end up getting snippets of the real Pyongyang. 

“While filming Crossing the Line, we went on the subway, where previously there had been a feeling of it being choreographed,” continues the cinematographer. “There’s a sequence where Dresnok’s sons go on one of the trains and walk through Pyongyang. We got on the train and shot it and followed them when they got off. We didn’t know which station we were going to get off at, and the minders just let it roll.” 

Filming was restricted mostly to the capital. “I’m not so naïve I don’t see the bigger picture of what’s going on in North Korea, but we’ve always said that what we’ve got is a snapshot of Pyongyang and not North Korea as a whole,” remarks Bennett. “What we’ve aimed to do was give a fairly good representation of what Pyongyang is like.”  

In the end, about 10 days of interviews with Dresnok helped create a unique film, a documentary about one of only two living men who deserted the U.S. Army and defected to North Korea. “I think he reconciled himself a long time ago to the fact that this is where he’s ended up, this is where he’s going to end his days, and he’s got to make the best of it,” says Gordon.

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