JIM FINN WITH PENNY LANEby Penny Lane
Jim Finn’s idiosyncratic shorts have been a fixture on the experimental film and video scene for a little over a decade now. In the past four years, he has managed the astounding feat of releasing three feature films with essentially no budget. And they’re good. Really good. Good enough to watch several times. In fact, if you don’t watch them several times, you might just miss the incredible craftsmanship at play.
Interkosmos (2006) is a Communist love story based on Finn’s “What if?” interpretation of a 1970s East German space program. It looks a lot like a 1970s documentary. Except for the musical numbers. La Trinchera Luminosa del Presidente Gonzalo (2007) is a painstaking recreation of a day in the life of women at a Peruvian prison circa 1988. The prisoners are members of a brutal Maoist insurgency, the Shining Path, whose rigid adherence to their sick ideology terrifies and in a weird way, impresses. The Juche Idea (2009), Finn’s best film yet, concerns a video artist’s attempts to update the antiquated film theories of Kim Jong-Il while employed at a North Korean artist residency (or is it a work camp?). The film is based both on Finn’s fantasy of what a North Korean artist residency might be like and the true story of a South Korean filmmaker who was kidnapped and forced to make propaganda films for Kim Jong-Il. Together, these three features form a fascinating trilogy about an increasingly nostalgic longing for Communist revolution, the poetic possibilities of propaganda, and the limitations of historical documentary.
Plus, they are hilarious in a completely unique way. Is there any other filmmaker who can dish up lines like, “Capitalism is a kindergarten for boneless children,” with a completely straight face?
Although his films are unmistakably, almost fiercely political, Jim Finn is anything but an ideologue. Finn embraces and even encourages confusion—the propagandist’s worst nightmare. I wanted to know more about how he squares his strong political leanings with his open-ended approach to filmmaking. The morning after a February 1st screening of Finn’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, we met at the Ace Hotel, where we each downed about six cups of Stumptown Coffee. This interview has been edited slightly to remove (most) traces of the ensuing caffeine-induced insanity.
Penny Lane (Rail): Can you share some of your pre-filmmaking background?
Jim Finn: I was born in 1968 and grew up in the 70s and 80s in St. Louis. The first president I was excited about was Jimmy Carter. I went to a lot of different Catholic schools—the St. Joseph nuns, the Jesuits, the Christian Brothers, and the Benedictine monks. Then I went to a small Jesuit college, Fairfield University, for a couple of years, and moved from there to University of Arizona where they had a creative writing department where I studied poetry. It was great. I studied with Barbara Anderson, Jane Miller, and a number of other writers. I kind of got into this poetry thing, but I did not have any concept of how to build a career writing poetry. I have to read these magazines that I don’t really like; I have to do these public readings which I like but I don’t know how to set them up. And I’m supposed to hang out alone a lot or something. I didn’t really get it. [Laughs.]
And so I went and did political work for a couple of years. Lived in Latin America with a group called Witness for Peace working with Guatemalan refugees in Chiapas during the whole Zapatista uprising. I did that for two years and moved to Chicago in 1995. I had taught myself photography in Latin America. When I got to Chicago I really jumped into photography and was still writing a bit. I fell in with a lot of young filmmakers and also a lot of musicians, this gang of artists who became friends and collaborators like Jeff Mueller, Dean DeMatteis, Jim Becker, Nicole Emmons, Dana Carter, and Butcher Walsh.
I almost left Chicago—it was too fucking cold and I didn’t like it. But instead of moving, I got a small, maybe $900 grant in 1997 to make a short 16mm film, Sharambaba, which I think ended up costing $3000 to make. And I shot it, and it looked like a goddamn student film. I did not like the film at all. I didn’t start making films until I was 30, but I didn’t feel like a student filmmaker. So I took it into a Steenbeck and started running it and rewinding it and realized the film was better and funnier backwards. And it worked because I had a Ecuadoran-American actress with a slight accent that worked backwards. English is so staccato, whereas Romance languages are more mellifluous, so backwards and forwards they kind of flow into each other. So I rewrote and gave her all the best lines in subtitles. Like “Marriage is like a mad dog on wood, floating on a river. It runs back and forth, frantic, thinking how to get off. And yet it is happy.” I shot the film in 1997 and didn’t screen it until 1999. I edited the film for two years. A three-minute film.
Rail: So your poetry was an important part of your films immediately?
Finn: Yes. My whole idea was that what I wanted to do was make something that seemed like a fiction, but was really a kind of poetry. And I felt like short films worked really well with that concept. Trying to make a short film with the exact rules of narrative features is, in a sense, cheating the medium.
Rail: Were there people you feel were instrumental in discovering and promoting your films along the way?
Finn: Oh God, yeah. The programmers at THAW, New York Underground, Rotterdam, Chicago Underground Cinematexas, Impakt, people like that. I had this phenomenon at many points in my life where I would make this work, and there were key people who would be really excited about it early. Then it would take a while for other people to catch on. It happened to me with my poetry, and it happened to me with my short films. So I got this confidence after a while. And also I read a lot of guerrilla theory, and I have this idea of this people’s war that’s not going to happen overnight. You just gotta keep doing this thing that you believe in and eventually—
Rail: How do you fund and distribute your work?
Finn: Well, in Chicago I had a system where I worked three part time jobs and got a lot of favors. I’ve always been of the mindset that you have to, I think, if you’re working outside the system, to build this alternative community. And rely, too, on other filmmakers. So most of my films have friends working on them, and I’ve also acted or shot video or helped edit other people’s films, too.
I also got a couple small grants from the city of Chicago. They weren’t that big but they helped. I would go for all the big ones everyone goes for, and I don’t know why exactly I never got any of those. I think part of the problem is that I build my films during editing a lot, and I have a hard time coherently figuring out my vision ahead of time. There are basically two ways to get funding for a film. One is to have a very clear idea of what you’re doing in advance, and the other way is to have a very clear theoretical framework so that you can explain to someone why you’re making this weird-ass experimental film. And I’m not very good at either of those. It’s taken me a long time to figure out why I even do what I do. Anyway, that kind of helped keep me broke and non-funded.
But with my first feature Interkosmos, I started selling DVDs like crazy and made a little bit of money from screenings. I had gone on two national tours with my short films so I figured out a lot about self-promotion. So I turned that money around right away and into La Trinchera Luminosa, my second film, which was cheaper than Interkosmos. And then I went and got my MFA, and put all my credit cards into student loans. Then I decided to make those two feature films in grad school. I treated grad school as kind of like a residency where I could do whatever I wanted. I made up names for classes like “Postmodern Socialist Realism” and “Biomedia Study: Insects” and “Luminous Visions in Video.” I mean, those were, like, really the titles on my transcript. [Laughs.] But I didn’t work while I was in school, so basically I racked up about 30 grand in debt. But I came out with three films, and an MFA, and since I had health insurance I also got my knee surgery, which I needed very badly.
Rail: All three of your feature films relate to particularly ideological Communist societies or social movements: East Germany in Interkosmos, Shining Path in La Trinchera, and Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea in The Juche Idea. How did you research these societies and movements, and how do you use the ideologies in writing and creating the films?
Finn: With Interkosmos, what I wanted to do was think about the way that these Marxist-Leninists imploded. They imploded at almost the wrong time, because they imploded at the height of the neoliberal capitalist model, after Reagan had supposedly proven how great Friedman economics were. So these places became this great experiment for Friedmanite economics and it was a total fucking disaster where all these young women got thrown into prostitution, people got tuberculosis, all this shit. With Interkosmos, I wanted to think about what could have happened if there had been some kind of transition to some kind of center-left, democratic model. I thought about this utopian system within a system. And I thought, well, that system was actually so corrupt and autocratic that it really could never have been reformed in that way, but if they had launched into space, maybe there could have been this space utopia thing.
And I also like the idea of the genre film that can be viewed as a genre film, but then have this other, deeper significance. Like I have to work with a genre system where you have these rules and the filmmaker had to follow them. So I create my own studio system. With The Juche Idea, I created my own North Korea studio system where I have to learn the rules of it and then subvert them. Or I created the Maoist Shining Path system that I subverted, and I created the East German documentary style that I then subverted. In a sense, sort of similar to what Fassbinder did with the melodrama, or Buñuel did with Simon of the Desert, or Pontecorvo with The Battle of Algiers, where you have seemingly one kind of film and then it goes in kind of a little bit of a different direction. I feel like I’m kind of referencing that tradition and also bringing in other weird elements, like the poetry thing and video art. But the main thing is that I felt with all three of these films that I couldn’t ever film stuff that would show the system as a corrupt system, because they would never allow that.
Rail: Why did you want to approach the Shining Path material in the way that you did? It’s very different from the more collage style of Interkosmos and Juche. It’s really more like an observational documentary.
Finn: I wanted to create it like I found a video that had been in a market in Peru. I had seen these BBC documentaries about the Shining Path, and they would use this raw footage of them marching or whatever, but then they always cut away to give this analysis of the group. I wanted to see a self criticism session. Stuff like that. There’s this concept that you can watch a documentary and you can say, okay, great, now I get that. I understand that culture or group or society. And you know what, you don’t. You don’t get that group. How can you get it? This is this whole phenomenon—there was a civil war in this country for 10 years, and you can watch a documentary for an hour and feel like you understand it? That doesn’t actually make any sense. Trying to jump into this other language and ideology and culture and history is really hard, so I felt like creating this intense thing where I’m playing by their rules. Now they get to talk; they’re going to explain their dogma and we’re going to have to listen. The first edit was 70 minutes of pure dogma and it was brutal, man. But I wanted it to be brutal. I wanted it to be immersive. Though the final edit is 60 minutes and it is a bit more reasonable.
As someone who grew up in Catholic schools in the 70s and 80s, you can kind of appreciate this idea of just having an ancient, rigid ideology where everyone else in the world knows you’re wrong, but you know you’re right. There’s just something about that idea that things are fucked up and there’s this capitalist storm around you, but you are a redoubt. That was appealing to me. And the Shining Path I had been thinking about for 10 years. There’s this idea in the States of the pure, good Left of Che Guevara or the Zapatistas, or Allende who’s the saint of the Left in Latin America. And then there’s the bad Left of Pol Pot, the Shining Path. So I thought, well, who’s making these judgments? Let’s look at the bad Left, the really nasty Left. And I wanted to think about who gets into these movements, you know—the young people trying to figure out stuff, maybe idealists. And I wanted to make something not sympathetic exactly, but from their perspective.
Rail: How did Interkosmos—
Finn: Are you going to pay someone to transcribe all this? Because that’s going to suck, man.
Rail: Nah, I’ll do it. It’ll be fun. How did Interkosmos come to be? Did it start as a feature, or did it evolve?
Finn: It evolved. Interkosmos was a Soviet program, an international space program. The idea was that Americans had this great space program, but that they’re into American nationalism and imperialism and all that. And so the Soviets, even though they were also imperialists, pretended like they were really international Communists. They had Vietnamese cosmonauts; I think there was one North Korean cosmonaut, Mongolian cosmonaut, Syrian, Indian, and East German cosmonauts. No one spoke German in space; everyone spoke Russian. So when I was making the film, I had this idea that there would be this utopia where everyone spoke different languages.
What it was originally—I had made Wustenspringmaus, which was the history of gerbils and capitalism. And I wanted to make this new film, which would be the history of guinea pigs and Communism, like a sequel. So I had the idea of guinea pigs as this international youth
symbol of Communism, and that they sent them into space on this mission. But then I thought, why would there be guinea pigs and no humans? And if there are going to be humans, they have to have a capsule. Obviously. Originally I was going to make a 12-minute film with these models and the guinea pigs. But then I decided on humans, and it got to be 20 minutes. And I thought, well, if I’m going to go through all the trouble to make a space capsule, I gotta make this thing longer. And then I was on tour in Houston, and these guys were like, “Oh, you’re making a space movie? We have all this NASA footage this guy left at our TV station.” And the Goethe Institut asked if I needed some electronic equipment, because they were decommissioning all their 80s stuff. Joe Bristol, my art director, had some lumber left over from an Ace Hardware ad. So it was like that. I pieced it together. A lot of people helped.
It took forever. And I had talked about it around Chicago and people were asking about it, “Where’s your space film? It sounded great man; are you ever going to finish it?” I made that mistake, of talking about your project before it’s done. [Laughs.] I didn’t know how long it was, it just kept getting longer.
Rail: It seems like your films, both the shorts and the features, require multiple viewings to really catch on with viewers. I can only speak for myself, obviously, and some folks I’ve talked to. I like them the first time because they’re strange and entertaining, but I don’t feel like I really get it until the second or third time. Like, I watched Dick Cheney in a Cold Dark Cell three times. The first time I was too busy saying, what? What is going on here, what is this filmmaker saying? It was just so strange and shocking that I didn’t know what to make of it—
Finn: But it’s kind of funny, right?
Rail: It was hilarious! But I needed the second viewing, when the shock and original surprise of the strange form of humor had faded, to see it analytically and feel like I understood what you were doing. Does that surprise you?
Finn: Well, part of it is the fact that I came from a poetry background, which is more of a rarified, esoteric audience. And I’m also kind of against the fast food idea, where you’re like “That tasted great!” and then you feel kind of dirty, like “Did I like that?” And that’s the worst feeling.
On the one hand, the films can be demanding, but on the other hand there’s stuff like the Oleg scenes in The Juche Idea. I mean, I laughed out loud at my own movie again last night [at MoMA]. The guy is just a genius. And the way the writing went, with Sung backing him up; it just blows my mind. Also, if you have the ability to make people laugh, that’s basically the equivalent of grabbing someone by the balls in the film world. You have them—they’re not going anywhere—if you can make them laugh. If you can make someone laugh out loud multiple times, that is fucking gold. So what I then do is go in this other direction of dry political commentary.
Rail: I guess what I’m getting at is that you assume a fairly sophisticated audience.
So for example, you don’t provide background information. You just kind of plop us into a situation and ask us to come along.
Finn: When I go to make the movie, I have all this background info. And I want to get all this historical information in there. And there’s always just so much exposition; it just slows it down. A lot of this stuff you can just read on Wikipedia, or there’s nothing wrong with watching a documentary about North Korea or the Shining Path. And so I realized the more interesting thing for me is that I’m trying to get at this emotional connection to the people, the ideology, all this sort of stuff. So I set the stage as if you have this background already there and I ask the audience to just hang with it. So that’s why I throw the audience some fucking bones. I’ll have this long dialogue going back and forth, and you’re like what the fuck, starting to get lost. And then I’ll stop it and go into a musical number so it doesn’t have to be this horrible marathon.
Rail: Are audiences ever confused by your films? Do they misinterpret things?
Finn: Well, sometimes they don’t know what’s real and what’s not. And so when they don’t know that, and they find out it’s fiction, there’s that feeling of, “Oh, it’s a mockumentary! I’ve been fooled!” I don’t see my work as a mockumentary. I feel like I’m kind of doing this other thing of creating a genre structure and subverting it and playing with the fiction-nonfiction line.
Finn: But also because I’m an American white guy filmmaker making these films about other cultures, it’s kind of a dangerous ground. I could be seen as making fun of someone else’s entire culture, or an entire social movement. I was told in Venezuela by one filmmaker that I had somehow made a film that mocked every Latin American revolutionary movement. And this was an ultra-leftist filmmaker who came to my screening. And then the ultra-rightist filmmaker that was there told me that he felt I should take the footage that I had and make a History Channel documentary, something like that. So obviously I wasn’t pleasing either of those two. Politically, I feel that my films are on the Left, but they’re quite critical of the Left, too. So that adds another element of potential confusion. I mean, when I made Interkosmos I had this idea that a lot of Communists might really love it; or I thought they might criticize it, but I didn’t really know. A lot of Marxists really don’t like what I do. They’re not excited about it.
Rail: Because you’re not an ideologue?
Finn: Maybe because I’m not an ideologue. But also, there is this idea that if you’re criticizing communism, you must be doing it as an excuse to prop up your own dead, decrepit, capitalist system. I mean, why am I using my talent to go after and take apart these easy targets of Marxist Leninism, when I could be using my talents to take apart these ideologies of what happened with the Iraq war—which I also still kind of do, with some of the shorts and stuff.
Rail: You said that you basically see your films as coming from the Left. Why do you choose material or topics or stories that make the Left so uncomfortable?
Finn: Well, I don’t go into a film thinking I’m going to elucidate some subject. I want to understand it myself. And so I’m trying to work through these ideological systems.
Part of it is that using this Marxist-Leninist ideology allows me to jump into other cultures and other languages. Part of the reason that I can use this weird poetic language that I use in the films is that it’s not in English. If someone just spoke that way in English, it would just sound like irony. Whereas my characters do it and you wonder, well, is that the way they spoke? I guess maybe it is; I don’t know that culture or that ideology. It’s part of that triple separation. A lot of the characters are women, so I have a gender separation. And the political separation of the Communist system; and there’s a cultural-linguistic separation. And also conveniently it lets me use my weird poetic language, where possibly in some other country and political system people might actually talk in metaphors like this.
There’s nothing wrong with being a dissident in the United States and making films about how fucked up our system is, and actually that would probably help you with grants and things, especially in the Bush years. [Laughs.] But I felt in a way it was trying to elucidate some of our own ideological traps that we fall into even now. That you could read the present in some way into these films about systems that have already collapsed in some cases.
I really did have this fantasy that somehow a Cuban film department would hear of me and invite me. But they’re not going to. If you’re making a film that’s experimental and criticizing these autocratic systems of the Left and capitalism, you’re muddling the message; it confuses people. As opposed to a kind of orthodox Marxist filmmaking in the U.S. or Europe where your thesis, your message, your criticism has to be clear. And I kind of feel like, what’s the point? I mean, these critiques have been happening, these films have been made, and yet here we are, and as soon as someone fucking blows up a building, we can just go back to pretending we’re British Imperialists.
Rail: No matter how many dogmatic lefty movies get made.
Finn: Yeah, exactly. So I wanted to work without it. I just feel like it’s like a trap. And so I try to invent my own systems.
Rail: One of the fun things about watching your films is that there’s all this text, and you know that a lot of it is appropriated, but it’s really hard to tell where your writing starts and where the texts end. I’m curious about how you think about that. Do you consciously find ways to mimic or parallel the tone of the found materials?
I had a line in my head like “Capitalism is a kindergarten of boneless children. It looks good from the hallway but when you get up close you can see how squishy and rotten it is.” I thought it was really funny so that’s a line for the film. But how will anyone accept a line like that in a film? A lot of the work is me trying to work the language up to a point where I can get away with a line like that. So I’m trying to set this tone where I can kind of slip those lines in. There’s a certain kind of humor in my films which is kind of laugh out loud funny, and there’s another kind of humor that’s more like, wait, what just happened?
Rail: How do you use characters in your films?
Finn: The main characters in all three feature films are women, and they’re sort of like Greta Garbo in Ninotchka, they’re like these Stalinists who are coming to the West and judging the capitalist countries and sticking with their own ideology. All three are these revolutionary women characters. But there’s sort of this crack in the facade. In Interkosmos, I built the love story with the guy who’s kind of a quasi-communist. He just wants to sing his crappy capitalism love songs, and she’s kind of judging him or maybe she’s just teasing him a little bit because there’s this flirty thing with them.
I’ve been held hostage by bad video art, or difficult experimental film where you don’t know where the fuck it’s going; but I feel like if a film’s structure is difficult, a character that we can relate to and grab on to and be interested in can help mitigate the difficulty of following the plot. I’m not giving people a lot of sort of traditional suspense—you’re kind of thrown into this situation and you don’t know exactly what’s going on—so the characters can help ground you a little bit.
Rail: I think Jung Yoon’s a really great character in The Juche Idea, and it feels like of all of them, she’s the most like your own alter ego. Do you think that’s accurate?
Finn: That’s interesting. Yeah, she is sort of like me as a Stalinist alternative me or—
Rail: Like if I asked you, “How do you feel about making films in a capitalist society?”
Finn: Yeah, right, “It’s like building a homemade floating barge in the bay, people come by and give you bits of carpet and lumber, and then when it’s time to launch the barge, everyone’s off watching the cruise ship spread its diesel bilge and raw sewage across the open ocean.” [Laughs.] The fact of the matter is that in the U.S. there’s this concept of success as an artist, and even if you’re doing well, there might be other things like maybe you’re broke? You might have stepped on so many friends along the way that you’ve ruined all your friendships or whatever it is. I don’t want to say everyone’s clawing their way to the top, that’s not exactly what I mean, but there is that concept of what it takes to get there,” as an artist, and what you have to do.And young artists all have that idea, like they imagine what it would be like to be an artist and have all your basic needs taken care of, all your food and stuff. Like oh, I want to move to Berlin, or some magical other place like New York—
Rail: Or Canada.
Finn: Right, Canada. But seriously, how many people move to what they think is some magical place where’s there’s support for the arts and you don’t have to struggle to eat, but you can just make your work, which is already a struggle. You know, it’s a huge struggle to figure out what your vision and how you can do it in some kind of a smart way. And on top of that you have to figure out how to fall in love and pay the rent and live a life and maybe have a little bit of fun. And so, I thought maybe there’s this residency in a communist country where they’re providing you with the space, but there are these limitations too. Like you have to make these weird propaganda films, but maybe then you can have fun with that, too. And you have to shovel chicken shit.
[At this point, Jim realized he was 20 minutes past checkout time. Before he fled, I asked him to autograph my copy of Kim Jong-Il’s On the Art of Cinema.]
Anthology Film Archives is hosting a retrospective called Utopian Comedies: The Films of Jim Finn May 27 – June 2.