ASFF 2020: Best of Festival Interview

ASFF 2020’s Best of Festival and Best Documentary awards went to Maija Blåfield’s The Fantastic. We caught up with the Finnish director to learn more about her inspirations and the production process behind the film – now streaming on our online platform.

ASFF: What is The Fantastic about?
MB: The Fantastic is a film about encountering the unknown and the relationship between imagination and reality. The film is built on interviews with exiled North Koreans, who describe what they imagined the outside world to be like, based on their experiences of watching smuggled western fiction films.
ASFF: What inspired you to make The Fantastic?
MB: In 2013, I spent a winter in Seoul in South Korea. During the time, the political situation between the North and South Korea was in the news. I noticed that North Korean people were presented rarely as individuals, mainly just as a uniform group defined by their nationality. They live their lives in an environment with very limited access to the news and information. I became interested in how these people experience and visualise reality. It was also an interesting challenge for a documentary filmmaker to make a film with protagonists to whom there exists such strong prejudices. I wanted the audience to see over these preconceptions and be able to tell this story.

ASFF: How was the filming process in North Korea? Did you encounter any problems?
MB: I went to North Korea as a tourist. The idea was not to film, but instead to research before I made the interviews in Seoul with North Korean refugees. I had followed the discussion by western tourists about their visits to North Korea. They all kept wondering about whether what they saw was true reality or whether it was just a piece of theatre. I realised that these were the very same questions I was expecting the interviewees to have about life depicted in the illegal movies while still in North Korea, but from the opposite side.
I had just a small unprofessional camera with me, as I was not planning on filming any material. I didn’t want to make “another documentary about North Korea” and show exotic images of a closed-off state. Instead, I wanted to create the image based on the idea of not knowing something. When we are lacking information, we tend to use our imagination to fill up the missing parts.
During my visit, I started to film some landscapes and interiors, which “did not look like North Korea to me”. We ended up using all this material by adding visual effects on top of it. The idea is not to show the documentary footage, as all the footage filmed in North Korea has been altered by VFX. Only the material filmed in the border areas is shown without the effects. Instead of documentary images, we are watching images created by imagination.
ASFF: Your film explores North Korean’s perceptions of western culture through visual effects, why did you choose to use visual effects instead of interview footage?
MB: I only recorded the audio during the interviews for two reasons: most of the interviewees wanted to stay anonymous and their voice is altered. I had no interest in showing talking heads anyway. By alternating documentary footage and visual effects, the film raises the question of how reality is defined and what we wish to believe in. The Fantastic reverses the set-up where westerners are peeping in on the everyday life of the closed-off state. In this film, it is the North Koreans who direct their curiosity at the outside world and imagine what life in Western countries is like.
ASFF: How important is film in relation to shaping someone’s culture?
MB: Our life and reality presented in films is a kind of portrait. This portrait is never a completely true image of one’s everyday self, but at the same time, it is not untrue either. It gives us valuable tools and different aspects to understand the reality we have.
ASFF: How does it feel to have been awarded with ASFF’s Best of Festival award 2020? 
MB: Absolutely great! Thanks a lot for the jury on behalf of the whole small crew of The Fantastic.

Watch The Fantastic and over 450 other films on ASFF’s Online Platform. Join us until 30 November. Book Your Pass. 

Adam Grewer