Gothamist spoke with award-winning filmmaker Aaron Lubarsky as he wandered the airport waiting for his flight to board. Lucky for us it was delayed.
We sought Lubarsky out because his latest film, Seoul Train, screens in both the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival and the Brooklyn International Film Festival on Sunday. An examination of the growing humanitarian crisis in North Korea - a story that is somewhat overlooked in favor of the WMD discussion - the film includes footage of an “underground railroad” set up to help save refugees. In addition to Seoul Train we wanted to find out about some of Lubarsky’s other projects, including Journeys with George, and get his opinions on documentary filmmaking.
Occupation: Documentary Filmmaker
Place of birth: California
Current residence: Manhattan
Length of time in New York: 6 years
Online guilty pleasure:citizentruth.blogspot.com
Your documentary Seoul Train exposes the horrible conditions in North Korea and details the plight of those who decide to risk their lives to escape. The film shows that many of the refugees go to China, but the Chinese government frowns on these escapees, rounding them up and sending them back. What happens when they are sent back?
North Korean policy states that if you leave the country and come back, you’ll be punished.
So basically they are sent to their death...
Their fates cannot really be confirmed. Experts believe (based on testimony) that they are sent back to a fate that is dramatic, most likely sentenced to years of hard labor in prison, possible torture, and in some serious cases, executed.
Can you talk about the “underground railroad” that tries to help the refugees.
What makes the “underground railroad” activists so critical is that they’re doing something. They are actually individuals who are stepping up and taking action. What they’re doing is controversial. You can make an argument that they could be doing more harm than good.
They are jeopardizing people’s lives trying to bring this issue to the forefront. That is one of the real conflicts with this subject, how do you bring human rights into people’s minds without doing damage – but that’s a bigger question.
How did you come to learn of the “underground railroad?”
I was approached by Jim Butterworth and Lisa Sleeth, the producers of the film and also the film’s co-directors, about making the film. Before that I had no knowledge of the underground railroad except what I had learned in school about the underground railroads during the Civil War and also kind of the underground that existed during WWII.
Can you talk about the footage in the film.
Most of the footage is shot by the activists themselves.
It was a very sensitive subject because you don’t want to expose these activists because it could jeopardize not only what they’re doing but their lives. They don’t want it to be public that they are part of this underground movement, so we had to keep some people’s identities anonymous.
How were you able to get the footage?
Jim and Lisa were able through a network of connections to find the footage. All the connections were made through different human rights organizations that exist in China and South Korea and through members of this sort of secretive network, this underground network who would connect us with the right people.
It is virtually impossible for Americans to get access to North Korea.
The film has already screened in many festivals and for groups all over the world. What has the response been like?
The response has been incredibly positive at all the screenings. And the hope is that it’s going to trigger people to get involved and become more aware of this issue.
There is also a website… this is sort of a business model that Jim’s playing with in trying to use the film as a way into the issue, to not just leave it with the film but allow people to go to the web where they can learn more. People can get involved and find out what they can do and kind of create a grassroots campaign. Topics like this are so big because they are dealing with these macro issues. Here you’re dealing with the U.N., you’re dealing with China, you’re dealing with North and South Korea and the United States.
I think what Seoul Train does, is it gives a real face to the refugees that I think a lot of people have never seen before. And so what we find is that the reaction is often very emotional and so far very positive.
Do you think the film is making an impact, or bringing about change? If so, how?
That’s a great question. It’s hard to gauge if a film can ever have that kind of direct impact. To me that’s a really fascinating separate subject, “can documentaries actually make a difference?” There are examples of films that have had a direct impact on people’s lives and others that you don’t know for sure. Just this past year Congress passed a human rights act that has done a lot towards helping on this particular issue. That happened while we were still finishing up the film, so it was already on the forefront of people’s minds.
I think what the film is doing is bringing an awareness to people who otherwise really have no knowledge of the human rights situation going on in North Korea, because when most people think North Korea they think Kim Jong-il and they think weapons of mass destruction and they think this nuclear threat. You don’t think so much about the human rights abuses that are going on. The hope is that this film will shed a little light on that.
Refugees International released a report back in the beginning of May that stated the Bush Adminstration has not done enough to the help the North Korean refugees. Based on your research, would you agree?
I don’t want to get my personal politics muddled with the film. I feel like of course we could be doing more, we could always be doing more. I mean the Bush Administration just sent stealth fighter jets to South Korea as a form of diplomacy. I hate to put it all on the Bush Administration cause I think it’s more than the Bush Administration.
But there are a lot of members of Congress fighting hard for this cause. And I think the North Korea Human Rights Act that was just passed is a step in the right direction.
Also, isn’t the U.S. sort of contributing to some of the human rights issues going on through cutting off the food supply to get North Korea to rejoin the arms talks…
I don’t want to nail the Bush Administration because I really think it’s a bigger issue. It’s easy to blame the Bush Administration and it’s easy to blame China and it’s easy to blame the UNHCR, but the truth is that if you have to point fingers and find a culprit it’s North Korea, it’s their policies, it’s their abuse of the food that’s been coming in…
You are also the editor on the project. What was that process like?
It was incredibly challenging weaving together individual stories with big political ideas. Here you are also dealing in foreign languages and with subtitles. There is also a burden to try and educate the audience, while at the same time trying to entertain the audience. For documentaries, the kiss of death is if it’s boring even if it’s important. So it was really kind of a creative challenge to juggle all that together and have it make sense and have an urgency.
Would you agree that most documentaries are really made in the editing room?
I do, but then again I’m the editor. I love editing.
It’s such a big issue, let me see if I can sum it up quickly. The obligation is to the truth so therefore when you are in the field you really can’t direct things, you can’t stage things, you can’t repeat things. So where the film is actually constructed and the arguments are built and where the story is defined is in the editing, which is very different than narrative film where all that is done in the writing and the screenplay. When you are unscripted in documentary it really puts all of the challenge of making the movie, I think, in the post-production. Of course the production is essential in getting the camera in the right place and getting the right people but you can’t direct them, you have to just get what you get and then figure out a way to put it together.
You also worked on Journeys with George, the documentary about George Bush’s 2000 Presidential Campaign. Based on your experience working on that project, does what followed with regard to his presidency make sense?
The answer to that question boils down to September 11th. There was no way to predict that and the ramifications it had on not only the world but on Bush as a president. In a way Journey’s with George, which was shot all pre-9/11, feels like a period piece. It captured a very innocent time when in our country the biggest issue during that campaign was the alternative tax. There was no Department of Homeland Security or “terror level alerts” or things like that. But you know the editing was happening during September 11th and in New York which was a very strange experience. I had to stop working on the project and there was a question whether… you know when we would continue, if we would continue, because it just felt so unimportant at that time. But eventually we were able to get back on track and to finish.
But I don’t see George Bush as the President of the United States, I see him as a character in a movie. And my job was to be true to him and as true to that character as possible. I think that really is the obligation and responsibility of the filmmakers and so it’s hard for me. I hear him speak and I’m still organizing and editing in my mind the best way to put that together.
Is there anything that got left on the editing room floor?
Pretty much everything with Bush is in the movie, except there was one line when he turns to the camera and says to Alexandra, “The trick to this film is gonna be in the editing.” And, I cut that out.
The most interesting thing about working on that film was the bigger issue of the relationship between the media and the candidate. Bush is just a main character, is he going to make it to the end kind of thing. But the real issues and the real ideas come from the journalists.
How do you feel about the way people edit Bush today?
I think it’s lazy, I think it’s just too easy. I think there is a much more subtle and honest way to edit that can be far more effective than just going for the obvious. I mean it works, it can be really entertaining. It just depends on your individual agenda and the kind of project that you’re making. Like Fahrenheit 9/11 doesn’t pretend to be an objective documentary. Michael Moore even calls it like an op-ed. You clearly know his point of view. So it’s appropriate in his case to edit Bush in such a way to make him a joke and it’s effective and it works for that film. But when you are trying to be more objective and more balanced I think the filmmakers personal feelings need to be set aside. Objectivity is very difficult if not impossible to achieve.
How would you define yourself as a documentary filmmaker if say Michael Moore is on one side of the spectrum…
That’s a good question. Non-fiction films now come in all sorts of flavors. The kinds of films that I personally love and aspire towards are pure cinema verité, you don’t see as many of those anymore. The father figures in that world are Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles Brothers
. Then you have issue films like The Corporation or Enron and then there are political issue films, and Seoul Train falls into that category. Then there is a different kind of non-fiction film and then there’s the personal film. And then there are personal films that are political like Supersize Me and Fahrenheit 9/11. There is a whole range. I love them all.
Now Journeys with George is not cinema verité. Did you and Alexandra Pelosi (the other director) debate how that film was going to turn out?
You have to be true to your footage and the footage that she shot, the very nature of the footage, was home movie-ish, it was hand-held, it was very amateur and you don’t want to fight that and try and make it into something that it doesn’t want to be. You have to embrace it and be true to her style and her personality. This meant that the entire film had to have that same feel as that shakey camera and as that kind of guerrilla home movie feel. I think that’s a form of documentary honesty. You can always tell in documentary films when they are trying too hard to make it something that it doesn’t want to be. It just isn’t the right tone, the right style.
Narration is also very prevalent in the film…
The narration was important and we fought a lot about the amount of narration. I think narration is also largely a crutch. It’s effective but it’s a very easy device you can use to connect scenes and connect ideas. I think it can be really effective, but it can also, I’m not saying it was like this in Journeys with George, but it can also sometimes be too distracting and take away from the deeper meaning of the film.
Now to step back a bit, you won a Student Academy Award and a Student Emmy for Wayne Freedman’s Notebook. Did that make things easier for you or did the awards cause additional pressure? Did you feel like you needed to focus on winning the next award?
The Student Academy Award…that award and awards in general I think are nice and people are impressed by that kind of stuff but it’s never the motivation.
After Wayne Freedman’s Notebook, I made a personal documentary that won awards and went to festivals but I never bought into that whole pressure of awards as a way of measuring the success of the film. I think when you do, you are setting yourself up for tremendous disappointment. First of all, film festival awards are completely subjective to award committees and screening groups and it’s a little bit like applying to college. Some people get rejected from small third tier schools but they are accepted to Harvard. It’s really kind of random.
I remember this one girl in my film program, she made this great film and it didn’t get into any film festivals. She was so crushed by that she kind of stopped making film. I sort of took the opposite position which was make a film and then when you are done with it put it in your closet and try not to care too much about how it’s received. But it’s hard to do. There is always a pressure. We live in a very competitive culture and if you are somewhat creative and ambitious you are always trying to push yourself to sort of do that next big thing.
What do you think are some of the trends in documentary film today or what do you think we’ll be seeing in the future?
Today, documentary filmmakers are born whenever they want to be. You can wake up tomorrow and just start calling yourself a documentary filmmaker. You don’t even have to make a film to start calling yourself one. All you need to do is get a camera for $500, come up with an idea – you want to make that documentary about that one-legged bike messenger- and that’s it, you’re off and running. It sort of dilutes the pool of documentarians.
Also, I think you are going to start seeing films in the future that include footage that takes place over 5, 10, 15 years now that people have access to cameras at earlier ages. We are the last generation that did not get to see our parents or grandparents on video when they were kids. But from here on out, the video camera is out of the bottle.
Would you ever work on a film as just an editor?
I don’t really just do the editing anymore. It’s not my nature to sit by and take direction from someone and just be a button-pusher. The projects I work on I really help shape their feel and their structure, that’s why there’s a co-director credit largely. I think what there needs to be is another word for what the documentary editor is. There just needs to be a different title that doesn’t exist right now that defines what that person does. The whole credit issue at large is tricky but in the world of documentaries, without a good shooter and without a good editor you really don’t have a film.
What’s next for you?
After Journeys with George I sent up my own post-production company, postDox, that does documentary post-production. I am just finishing up working on the editing of a documentary about the artist Matthew Barney. I’m also currently developing a documentary series with Busboy Productions, which is Jon Stewart's new production company. They want to step into the world of documentary so they asked me to produce and direct with them.
More political stuff?
No, it’s about sports. Which will be a welcome relief from the world of politics.
I love politics. I have a degree in political science, but I like to balance it. I need to go back and forth between the political subjects and something completely different.
Editor's note: Aaron Lubarsky will be attending both screenings of the film on Sunday, June 12. The Human Rights Watch screening is paired with Mardi Gras: Made in China, and begins at 1:00pm at the Walter Reade Theater. The BIFF screens the film as part of Program #29, which starts at 4:00pm at the Brooklyn Museum.