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PARK CITY ’07 INTERVIEW | Daniel Gordon: “Finally meeting Americans who were fully fledged citizens

PARK CITY '07 INTERVIEW | Daniel Gordon: "Finally meeting Americans who were fully fledged citizens

[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance ’07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]

British director Daniel Gordon‘s doc “Crossing the Line” made quite a splash at its world premiere last October at the Pusan International Film Festival. Many who had hoped to score tickets to the film were left well out of luck early in the day after their release. The film is an in-depth portrait of the last American defector still living in North Korea, 40 years on. In 1962, Private James Dresnock, a 19 year-old guard in the Koream demilitarized zone left his post and defected to North Korea, one of only four to do so during the height of the Cold War. The North Korean state soon decided to take advantage of their unlikely new resident, and cast him to play the “evil American” in propoganda campaigns against the United States. This is not the first North Korean-based doc for Gordon. He directed 2002’s “The Game of Their Lives” about the upset 1966 soccer (football) match between the North Koreans and Italy, which won a best doc nod at the 2004 Seattle International Film Festival. “Crossing the Line” will screen in the World Cinema Competition: Documentary section at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival.

Please give some insight in your background…

[I am a] 34 years old, producer/director of documentaries. I was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire, UK. (Home of “The Full Monty!”) I grew up in Manchester, UK, and after spells in London have relocated to my birthplace. I was a football (soccer) writer from an early age, producing fan magazines about my beloved football team, Sheffield Wednesday. I have since written two books about them.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

After my first book was published, I landed a job with Sky Sports, initially as a production junior, then worked my way up to producer/director on my own documentary series, “Tales From The Premiership.” I have since worked for Chrysalis, producing programming for BBC and Channel 4 in the UK before setting up my own production company, VeryMuchSo productions in 2001.

Did you go to film school?

I have never been to film school. Everything I have learned has been through experience. My first film was financed by private individuals before the BBC came in with completion funding, the second film was financed by a combination of BBC, BBC Worldwide, WNET (New York PBS station) and ARTE France, the third has been through a combination of BBC, private finance, South Korea, Japan and European Union funding sourced locally.

Please give some background on “Crossing the Line,” how did the initial idea come about?

I think it best I repeat my director’s statement: “Crossing The Line” is my third feature documentary, and the last in a loose trilogy based around North Korea. My first feature doc, “The Game of Their Lives,” told the story of the legendary North Korean World Cup team from 1966, who performed the greatest shock in World Cup history by knocking the mighty Italians out of the competition. The Italians returned home in disgrace, and were greeted with a hail of rotten tomotoes by irate fans. No-one knew what happened to the North Koreans. We became the first documentary crew to be granted access to ordinary people in North Korea.

The second doc was “A State of Mind,” the story of two North Korean schoolgirls who spend a year preparing for the Mass Games. This time the access was truly unprecedented–allowed to film in the homes, schools, workplaces of the families, over a nine-month period and at a time of increasing insecurity on the peninsula.

“Crossing the Line” director Daniel Gordon. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Having released those films, I discussed with my Associate Producer and North Korea specialist Nick Bonner, (who is co-producer on “Crossing”) what our next film ought to be. The answer was obvious. It was something we had discussed many times over the years. It was also our most ambitious.

Could we really find Americans living in North Korea, who had defected in the 1960s and remained there to this day?
We had begun discussions with the North Koreans whilst filming “The Game of Their Lives.” We continued to find out information as we progressed on “A State of Mind.”

In Pyongyang, in 2004, when we finally met Americans who were fully fledged citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, has to go down as one of the most surreal of my life. What we had not factored in was that the story was only just beginning…

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences and goals for the project.

I don’t really have any influences in my filmmaking, I just try to tell a good story, trust my instincts and allow the audience to make up its own mind.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?

I think the biggest challenge for us was to actually meet the US defectors living in North Korea. It is a day we never really thought would happen, and when it did, it proved to be one of the most surreal of my life. There we were, in Pyongyang, in a location we had been many times before, chatting away to two Americans who were wearing Kim Il Sung badges, speaking in a form of American English that appeared to be from another era (it was, of course, as they had last been in America in the early 1960s).

What we could not foresee was how much the story was going to change before our very eyes and after that the challenge was to keep everyone on our side and believe that we would deliver our promise of making another non-judgemental film.

What do you hope to get out of the festival, what are your own goals for the experience?

I really want above all to savour the experience and enjoy myself. Sometimes you can be so caught up in the moment, or overwhelmed by all that is going on, that you have no time to take in just what it is that is happening, and how special these times are. A good sale would help!

Please describe the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance.

I received the news by SMS and there was this overwhelming feeling of joy, it really was the lift I needed at the time. We’d had a rough time in the edit, and this was the reward we needed for going that extra mile in there.

What are some of your favorite films, and why? What is your top ten list for 2006?

Sadly, I don’t have the luxury of seeing many films, as much of my time is spent on my own films! On occasions I trawl the documentary sections of retailers and grab anything that gets my attention. Probably the most enjoyable film I saw in 2006 was “Wedding Crashers” on the plane in March!

What are one or two of your New Years resolutions?

I don’t tend to go for them, but if anything it’s got to try to be more at home for my newborn when he or she arrives, hopefully healthy, at the end of March.

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