You can’t have failed to notice North Korea’s presence in the news this year. With Donald Trump large and in charge from his Mar-a-Lago golf course and Kim Jong-Un burrowed away in deepest Pyongyang, it’s been 12 months of escalating tensions interspersed with the occasional period of quiet relief.
One person who certainly paid a lot of attention to the peninsula in 2018 was filmmaker Roxy Rezvany, who captured the creative world’s attention with her short film Little Pyongyang. An examination of life within the North Korean migrant community of Maldon, south west London, the documentary is stylish, insightful, and eye-opening.
Focused on the experiences of former DPRK soldier Joong-wha Choi, Little Pyongyang has captured a wide audience, thanks in part to the work of production designer Kat Hawker and set designer Louis Gibson, as well as graphic designers Maya Badouk Epstein and Erica Dorn, all of whom came together with Roxy to produce a documentary that, as our own Ruby Boddington put it earlier this year, “isn’t just a North Korean story; it’s an exploration of the nature of documentary storytelling itself, and the way design can empower and elevate it.”
Given the film’s success – it has now been screened around the world and won several awards – we felt it was only right to catch up with one of our favourite directors for an end-of-calendar chat.
It’s Nice That: What was your personal creative highlight of the year?
Roxy Rezvany: My personal creative highlight of the year was releasing Little Pyongyang and finally getting it out to audiences. It’s the first time I’ve produced and directed a film that’s been distributed on this scale at festivals and in cinemas, and so it’s been an amazing experience.
How do you go about defining a successful creative year?
RR: I’m definitely into quality over quantity. If I’ve been able to complete at least one of the things that was on the start-of-the-year “to do” list then I reckon I’m happy to call it a successful creative year.
What are you looking forward to leaving behind in 2018?
RR: I’m not quite sure anything I would want to leave behind is definitely going to disappear unfortunately.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in 2018?
RR: Even when you feel you’re really struggling to make ends meet, you can say no to jobs and people that you feel don’t respect you or your work, because it will pay off both emotionally and financially quicker than you think.
Did you expect Little Pyongyang to get the kind of (largely) positive feedback that it did?
RR: There wasn’t really an expectation of how Little Pyongyang would be received, but we had clear goals and intentions for how we wanted the project to have an impact. We wanted it to be widely viewed, to get people to relate to the experiences of North Koreans, and to take an interest in the human rights crisis. The positive feedback has been amazing though, both from the industry (we never thought we’d be up for any awards, but won best documentary at The Smalls and best director at UnderWire Film Festival this year) and more broadly from audiences who openly acknowledged and recognised North Korean refugees and their experiences.
What, if anything, have you learned about yourself and the wider world as a result of making Little Pyongyang?
RR: What’s been interesting as part of releasing the film is how no one has referred to this as a British film – perhaps including myself initially – but part of my first pitch for this story was that as a director part of my personal motivation for telling this story would be to contribute to the depictions in British cinema of a British Asian family on screen. Though its immediate urgency was to bring light to North Koreans’ experiences and the human rights crisis, in the long run I hope it has this legacy too. Little Pyongyang is a British film, made by a British filmmaker, and takes place in Britain. It’s a North Korean story for sure, and also integral to what I have brought to the story as a filmmaker has been my experiences as the child of immigrants to the UK, and through understanding elements of Joong-wha’s experience in the experiences of my parents. However, what I look forward to is people celebrating films that tell these sorts of stories as “quintessential British” stories too in the future, as we integrate the British immigrant experience as part of a unified British cultural identity.
Is it a film, and a year, you think you’ll look back on with pride?
RR: This is absolutely a film I will look back on with pride. Each year I get through, though, is one where I feel lucky and proud if I’m still managing to work in the creative industries!
Which other documentary filmmakers, and projects, have really stood out for you this year?
RR: The documentary I’ve really loved the most this year has been Shirkers by Sandi Tan. It’s about the journey to recovering her first feature film that she made back in 1992 with a group of friends in Singapore that was stolen. I was so appreciative that this story has been shared, which shows three different, talented Asian women who all loved film. However, it also crucially covered issues that can come in tandem for young and passionate filmmakers that I hadn’t seen so aptly covered in documentary before: the vulnerability of those who are just truly expressive in their work and need the work, the scepticism that people can have of work that is truly groundbreaking or rebellious and original, and how it is often only in retrospect that pioneering women can receive credit for their idea. I think it’s such a smart and beautiful film.
What are your hopes for the year ahead?
RR: A more accessible industry, to create more work that I’m proud of, and to receive some commissions.
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