Intangible artisan – a chat with Emma Franz

by Miriam Zolin

Emma Franz is the writer, director, cinematographer and producer of Intangible Asset No. 82, a 2009 film that you may be lucky enough to have seen screening at a festival somewhere around the world. The film has also recently been released on DVD.

Filming the sunset on location
Filming the sunset on location

The story follows jazz drummer Simon Barker’s journey and describes his fascination with, and search for, the music of South Korean Shaman drummer Kim Seok-Chul, the Intangible [cultural] Asset No. 82 of the film’s title.

And while Simon’s journey—as it is depicted in this film—is what most people talk about, I’ve also been keen to hear about how it was for Emma Franz—a musician in her own right but in the context of this film the hand on the camera, the pen on the paper, the silent narrator. The film has been acclaimed as a classic ‘hero’s journey’ but I’ve written enough fiction and creative non-fiction to know that real life rarely matches the story arc of a well-crafted tale. The craft of storytelling illuminates universal truths in individual stories. How much, I wondered, was this story ‘exactly as told’ and how much of this narrative was due to Franz’s skills as storyteller, brought to life by a vision that was hers, right from the very beginning? How, for example, did it happen that the ‘characters’ (real people) in this film fit so well into their archetypal roles of ‘hero’ (Simon Barker), ‘wise guide’ (Kim Dong-Won), ‘herald’ (Bae Il-Dong) and various ‘threshold guardians’ – shamans and musicians met along the way? Having met some of the main participants and having seen the film numerous times, it’s obvious that these real people all embody the characteristics of the parts they play in this film. But they are also real people, not actors. It’s impossible to believe that this film came together as easily as the story makes it look. It’s clear that Franz has been true to who they are. But filmmakers are arch-illusionists, messing with time and space. I knew that she had created something that demonstrated these qualities; after all, Intangible Asset No. 82 has been recognised worldwide as a well-crafted narrative. I wanted to hear more conversations about how it was for Emma Franz– the storyteller

I started by asking Franz if there was anything that stood out for her, about the making of the film. I was asking about ‘the journey’, but I knew there were two possible journeys she could talk about: the artistic journey of making the film, and the physical journey to South Korea (actually I think there was more than one!). There was no doubt that the film was something that would affect her profoundly—not only as a filmmaker but also as a musician.

Emma Franz: I wanted to make a film about music that could express my experiences with it (and passion for it) through my own work and travels as a musician. I had already been tossing the themes and ideas around in my head for a long time and when I heard of Simon’s search and witnessed how it had affected him, I knew what a perfect fit this story would be. That is, I knew inherently the type of things that would happen and this meant I also was able to think about how to shoot it when I went there, and how to get the content to tell the story that I wanted to tell.

When I was actually there, though, it was a baptism of fire—this was my first film, I was learning on the job, and non-stop multi-tasking, the whole trip. I had a camera on one arm and a telephone in the other hand. In between shooting what I thought was important I was phoning ahead to find accommodation for everybody, being a producer on the fly as well. And then just trying to be aware of what was happening around me, and being aware of where the story was heading. When you’re scripting you want to be clear that the bits you are editing out and including are actually true to what people were expressing at the time. I was just trying to remain amongst all of that, fully aware of what was happening, everywhere and not just in front of the camera.

It was a real revelation to me how difficult it was to make films single-handedly! [laughs] At the same time I was feeling totally immersed in the journey as if it were my journey as well as Simon’s, which it was.

It had a lot of the elements of a lot of other travel that I’ve done as a musician, especially when I’ve been interacting with other musicians and artists… in particular, immediacy and warmth and community atmosphere; new exciting things happening all around, a new milieu and environment and new things to learn.

A lot of the time in a sense I wasn’t conscious that I was filming and I sometimes had to remove myself from the picture—understandably, people kept looking at me and talking to me as well as Simon.

But on the other hand, I also feel that the ‘people’ experience, that experience of interacting with other cultures is something that helps my film-making a lot, because it does give me access to other people. The ease that people felt in front of the camera was a lot to do with the fact that I engaged with them and talked to them and didn’t completely remove myself. So it’s kind of a fine line I had to tread.

Miriam Zolin: So really you couldn’t just be in the moment and experience it. You always had to have in your mind that this was about a film you were trying to make!

EF: Yes, that’s so true. And then I’d find myself going to bed at night and all these experiences would be swimming around in my head and in a way that was… really it was strange. The really weird thing was looking at that material in the edit, having it translated in detail for the first time, reading it again and again, looking at it over and over, it was almost like that trip lasted for two years because I was noticing things in the frame that I hadn’t noticed when I was there.

MZ: Even though you’re definitely in a ‘foreign’ culture, you don’t try to make it about the differences. Instead you seem to have made a film about connection.

EF: Well thanks, and it’s one of the reasons I want to make films about music. I feel that a lot of the films that are made about music come from that a didactic approach, highlighting ‘the other’ and in a way, alienating. A film might be a hagiography, or be saying ‘hey look how strange they are’ from an anthropological approach or ‘look at this scandalous person’ . But films done this way can create a real distance between the subject and the viewer. I want to make films that can take the viewer inside the experience and make them feel like they were there. Because that’s what music does; it connects people in that way.

MZ: You said before that you had an idea of the story you wanted to tell—and then obviously you were filming and then there was a long process of editing. How flexible did you then have to be to incorporate all the things that really happened?

EF: When I say I knew what story I wanted to tell, I guess I’m speaking more thematically and metaphorically so it wasn’t necessarily the whole story. It was more that I wanted to show someone immersed in something and growing and learning from the experience. Primarily I wanted to show that music can be the element that can connect people and can bridge those gaps—be they cultural gaps, or just the disparity in peoples’ lives.

I knew from all my experience travelling with music, that that would happen.

So whether Simon met the Shaman or not, as with all journeys, I knew he would meet other people along the way. I knew he had already been learning so much from other people he had already met. I knew that would continue to happen. I knew great relationships would be formed. I knew they would start to collaborate—I inherently knew all that. So the thing was to watch for points where that was happening in real life and then utilise that and the real material to create a story. And of course that also meant sometimes playing with time and creating an illusion of shorter time or longer time or whatever, so that the audience can get a sense of the length and depth of Simon’s journey – not just the last part of his journey that I filmed – and really get involved in the arc of the story as well. There is always creative licence in these things, but in the end, it still is—although I hate using words like this—a sort of ‘ultimate truth’. It is still expressing the reality of what happened but trying to do it by working with the material to create a story that people can become engaged with.

I’m also not keen on the word documentary.

MZ: What would you call it instead?

Emma Franz films Bae Il-Dong in the forest
Emma Franz films Bae Il-Dong in the forest

EF: Well I still just call it a film, it’s creative story telling based on real life and real peoples’ experiences. I think people still have a mindset that a documentary is kind of dry, even though so many documentary films using real material now are much more in the narrative vein and involve characterisation, really looking deep inside the people they are following. I know from experience that people get put off when they hear the word ‘documentary’ and then once they actually see a documentary film that is made with artistry—and I’m not saying that’s what I’ve done—they actually change their mind and start to talk about it as a ‘film’, which is rather curious.

MZ: I’m interested to hear about any things that really surprised you about the film, when you were making it. You went in and knew what would happen thematically, but you didn’t know how it would happen or the actual events. Did anything mess with your expectations?

EF: I don’t want to give away any spoilers…. but some of the actual events, and the way that they happened and the timing that they happened… it almost shocked me that things actually happened the way they did! Without wanting to sound too abstract, the film did have s sense of destiny.

I was – or I felt – prepared for whatever happened. I knew that there would be life changing things happening for Simon and other relationships developing, but I really didn’t expect things to turn out the way they did. And you know, Kim Dong-Won said—and this is one of the parts where I had to edit my name out of the film—he said “I really think Simon and Emma were sent by the holy ancestors…” Some of the turn of events really surprised us at the time, but later on I sat and thought about it and thought gee, it’s really… if you were a believer you would think there was something weird going on there.

MZ: Don’t you find that some projects have these elements of destiny… you get these little signs along the way that you are on the right path?

EF: Yes, if I look at that five years it took to complete the project, from a logical standpoint, I should have quit many times; the amount of money it was costing, the amount of time and what it was doing to my health! But then something would happen just at the right moment to save me and then of course you would realise what you had learned from the struggle leading to that point. Maybe because I believed so much in the film and its contents there was always something in the back of my mind saying ‘something will happen that will make this keep going and get it to the end’.

For information about Intangible Asset No. 82, including upcoming screenings and how to purchase DVDs, visit the film’s website at

Emma Franz is currently working on a film about jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.