In conversation: Jim Finn
Jim Finn, "The Juche Idea", 2008, Filmstill
In his survey of the use of archival footage, Films Beget Films (1964), the American filmmaker and historian Jay Leyda (1910-1988) famously coined the term “compilation” film to refer to a kind of documentary wherein newsreel footage and other found materials would be cut-up and recombined to create new meanings. An early masterpiece of this type was Soviet filmmaker Esfir Shub’s (1894-1959) The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), the first part in a trilogy of then recent Russian history, which in the words of historian Josh Malitsky utilized the archival collections of the then Soviet film factory-archives “to diminish the present by looking to the future through the prism of the past.” 1 Possibly due to editorial oversight as well as other ideological motivations such as the development of montage theory, Shub’s “documentaries” offer clear and polemical views of the gentry’s corruption dialectically set against exploitation of workers, soldiers and so forth. In any case, the influence of Shub’s de-contextualized and then re-contextualized editing style is undisputable, whether looking at documentary film, or even avant-garde video work.
Now fast forward to the early 21st century, after the so-called collapse of the Soviet Project. And here we find American filmmaker Jim Finn (born 1968) noted for creating a set of three films not interested in the formation of a communist state, or propagandizing per se, but aimed at digging into to these very histories, utopian ideologies, and most importantly, film production styles. Yet, instead of being a reporter of record, Finn’s films--Interkosmos (2006), a comedic pseudo-documentary on the fate of an imaginary GDR/USSR deep space colonization program, La Trinchera Luminosa del Presidente Gonzalo (2007), a fictionalized day-in-the-life exposé of a Peruvian woman’s prison populated by Shining Path Maoists, and The Juche Idea (2008), a constructed propaganda film centered around the conceit that a video artist from the Republic of Korea was invited to update the Democratic People's Republic of Korea’s film system via an hybrid farming residency for artists--invert the form of the historical documentary into a new hybrid, part archeology, part satire. Complete with simulated original material, this new trilogy looks toward our own neoliberal future through the prism of the Soviet past. And considering that these works have been at the center of a recent retrospective at Anthology Film Archives earlier this month, and will be screening as part of MoMA / PS1’s “Greater New York 2010” exhibition later this summer, it would be easy to say that New York is experiencing a bit of a Jim Finn moment. For this and many other reasons, Jim and I shot back-and-forth a series of emails discussing his work.
Adam Kleinman: What are you currently working on?
Jim Finn: I made three short features about ideologies and systems outside the US that I shot inside the US. Now I'm making a film about the US that I have shot outside of it over the last year and a half. I'm working on a film that is about the connections between the Cold War and the War on Terror with a bit of Reagan and liberation theology.
Kleinman: This inversion of place you mention, is it deliberate?
Finn: In a way. I'm taking advantage of the international flights I've been getting. I am an opportunist. Just when I have made enough films, and have gotten enough recognition to get some well deserved funding for my work, the global economy imploded. Neo-experimental pseudo-comedic films are not high on the funding list these days, so I have to make the films any way I can. Using festival flights helps.
Kleinman: This new film sort of continues your interest in societies that have no idea they are passing into history, or at least seem to be headed that way, a theme that can also be seen in your short on President Carter as well. Would you mind sharing with us your thoughts on politics and ways of life that seem to be on the brink?
Finn: With the first film Interkosmos I thought about a Utopian project within this larger failed quasi-Stalinist Utopia. The only way for it to really work without direct state control would be to put it in outer space. Also there is that appeal of starting again. Ok, we screwed that up, but if we try it this way, in this environment it will work. What appealed to me about the Shining Path was this idea of claiming to be on the right side of history but in reality being totally isolated physically and politically. Of course North Korea is a strange historical oddity.
Kleinman: Considering that your current project deals with the US directly, do you think that there are analogies, anachronisms, and the like, influencing the “American way of life”?
Finn: One of my inspirations was growing up in Catholic schools in the US. I had some discipline problems and moved around schools a lot so I ended up with the St. Joseph nuns, Christian Bros, Jesuits, and Benedictine monks. These people were living in the second-half of the 20th Century but acting like nothing much had changed on the planet in the last millennia. I think that influenced me. Plus, the first President I ever got excited about was Jimmy Carter who was universally considered to be a failure and an aberration, especially when compared with the shining beacon of hope for the earth who followed: Ronald Reagan. I lived in Latin America working with Guatemalan refugees who were living outside their country in part because of the US intervention in their country with the CIA overthrow of Arbenz in the 50s. And Reagan basically represents a sanitization of that history—the idea that the 50s were all about General Motors and getting to second base in the back seat, and not about murder, and mayhem, and killing the dreams of entire nations.
Kleinman: It is interesting that you are taking on the so-called right in this new film, as you have tended to tackle failures of the so-called left. Looking at your work as a whole, it is hard to pin down politically; by undermining both sides you seem to be producing a kind of skeptical filmmaking, no?
Finn: I yell at the TV and stuff like all good leftists. But, I have felt held hostage over the years by certain views you are supposed to have. One of the criticisms I got for working on these three previous films during the second-half of the most extreme rightwing government the US has had in a long time, is that I should be focusing my talents on taking apart US ideology and not these discredited and basically long-dead ideologies. But in a way, the Cold War didn't really end as much as it just popped like a balloon. One side just went away at the exact wrong moment—when neoliberal Friedmanite ideology was at its peak. So there was this idea that laissez faire capitalism was the ultimate anti-Utopian Utopia that would provide us with everything we need in the world. What it has given many people on the planet instead is despair. So I want to make work that deals with anti-despair. Work that takes apart these ideologies that try and provide us with political (i.e. realistic spirituality) reasons to live.
Kleinman: Is that where your humor plays in? I’m thinking here of your absurd pairings like the conceit of connecting the gerbil as a symbol of capitalism due to its wily and near survoirist behavior, or in Interkosmos where two cosmonauts are flirting and singing campy songs over the radio while looking at a moon of Saturn. Like all good satire, these jokes make your films thoroughly enjoyable, yet also create a mockery of the grand ideas professed by each of the regimes you cover. Do you have a distrust of ideology and rhetoric?
Finn: I am certainly a smart ass. No doubt about that. But I balance the humor with the serious bit and try to keep a straight face throughout. In a sense, I could have been a court jester of Marxism: making fun of capitalism but also ribbing the king (Chairman Gonzalo, Kim Jong Il, Karl himself).
Kleinman: Yes, I can see a bit of a Fallstaffian temperament in you, particularly in your literary sense of narrative structure. Speaking of which, you tend to employ alternate histories as a device, however, these new histories are often presented without closure, or at least in an obvious way. Would you mind speaking about the lack of certainty portrayed in your narratives?
Finn: I mentioned the lack of closure in the Cold War. There was no peace agreement, no planned transition to democracy, just the shock and awe of depression capitalism. Tuberculosis, mass prostitution and organized crime become normal in the former Eastern bloc. I think in film there is a false sense of closure sometimes. And yet the characters in my films are in these isolated environments (outer space, prison, farm residency) and we don't really know what has happened to them. I think that keeps them living in our brains in a way. You wonder about them in a way you wonder about someone you used to know who isn't on facebook or whatever. But also they have that mythic appeal of a failed guerrilla movement.
Kleinman: Speaking of lost or buried antecedents, and maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I do see you as a bit of a cineaste trying to find new ways to push film while knowing its history. What are some of your influences, inspirations, and the like, and how might you be working through them?
Finn: I love old Hollywood films where you have these rules of what you can do and say forcing filmmakers to work within constraints. I wanted to create that kind of studio system in an experimental socialistic way with my movies. I watched a lot of Juche cinema, which is a kind of B-movie studio system in North Korea, to prepare for The Juche Idea. You mentioned the cosmonaut dialogue; Ninotchka (1939), Lubitsch’s film with Greta Garbo as a Stalinist apparatchik who flirts with a crappy French playboy, inspired that. I wanted to invert that history, so that the French playboy follows her out to a future in socialist space. I love the Buñuel films where he is working within the Mexican studio system: Simon of the Desert (1965), Susana (1951), Mexican Bus Ride (1952) are examples in this respect. There is this tension between his vision and the studio system, which I like. I think also that people are really much more media savvy than we give them credit for. I have to work much harder to make my fictions believable since they are not shot with any real budget to speak of. I come from a poetry writing and experimental film/video background so I do like to push the form. And that includes not accepting inclusion within the ghetto of experimental filmmaking or the ghetto of mockumentary or the ghetto of political filmmaking.
Kleinman: Before we get deeper into your play with genre, I think its important to speak a little about distribution and what you mean by various audience “ghettoizations”. Currently your work is distributed via art world formats such as exhibitions as well as in film festivals and cinemas. So, my question is, how does distribution and display effect the reception of the work?
Finn: I have a certain crossover appeal. A video art distributor disseminates my work and it has screened in festivals, museums and galleries. I see my work more in the history of film, though my disregard for the conventions of genre is appealing to the art world. The first festivals to screen my work were experimental and underground festivals. The features have screened extensively internationally, mostly in festivals. I started getting these retrospectives (the first was at BAFICI in Argentina) and that has really helped me because people can see how my work and ideas are developing. In Latin America especially the response has been interesting. I think my irreverence and political obsessions have a certain appeal especially since they have been held hostage to a certain kind of earnest political filmmaking. The communist trilogy was just acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but then The Juche Idea is being distributed by a traditional film company, Kino Lorber. Films like mine need all the help they can get. I've been lucky with some great press, which has helped to push the films along.
Kleinman: Do you have any concerns with how galleries and museums present films in the format of an exhibition?
Finn: As long as the film is seen from beginning to end, I don't really care where people see it. The nice thing about the art world context is that people are less likely to have a preconceived idea of the film as a documentary, mockumentary, comedy, etc… I hope it works to my advantage.
Kleinman: What are your thoughts on genre as well as the converse; on abstract art cinema, which tends to eschew genre, narrative, etc.
Finn: I had this idea that countries would invite me to go through their archives and make films in any way I wanted to. I created that explicit fiction in The Juche Idea. But really a lot of my work has this found appeal. Even my first short film Sharambaba (1999) or many of my other shorts have this conceit of being discovered historical objects. In the same way that authors create characters, I want to create historical fictions. I get the look and feel and language and politics and then get some of my own odd poetic language and absurd ideas in. Ultimately this idea of classifying work into genres is really about marketing, isn't it? So if you accept this role of experimental filmmaker, you are announcing that you are above this dirty business of marketing and so you are part of this alternative organic market. But then that has its own rewards doesn't it? In academia, in the art world, etc… the important thing is to make the film you want to make.
1 "Esfir Shub and the Film Factory-Archive: Soviet Documentary from 1925-1928." Screening the Past 17 (2004).