Almost inexplicably, when compared with previous documentary screenings, the KCC’s mini festival of Korean documentaries, spread over two weekends, was over-subscribed, with latecomers for one session needing to sit on the floor. The decision to break out the documentary strand from the main London Korean Film Festival has probably been vindicated, and the strategy of partnering with Birkbeck and other institutions in curating the screenings at the KCC has also probably had its own effect in terms of bringing in new audiences.
Of course, the level of interest will also have been attributable to the focus on the work of the director who can probably be regarded as the father of modern Korean documentary-making, and the presence of the man himself, Kim Dong-won. The festival fittingly took its name from one of Kim’s films, Another World We Are Making: Haengdang-dong People 2 (2000), which was the second of two documentaries he made about residents forced to evacuate the Haengdang neighourhood (southeast from Dongdaemun, near the Han River) to make way for development. The selection of films for the festival focused on documentaries which espoused the cause of the underprivileged, arguing for a more human, fairer society.
The first afternoon of the season was a double bill of Kim Dong-won’s early documentaries. The first, The Sanggyedong Olympics, was made over the course of three years, and follows the fate of the inhabitants of an area scheduled for redevelopment in the run-up to the Seoul Olympics. First, after a long struggle they are evicted from their neighbourhood and end up taking refuge at Myeongdong Cathedral, their time there overlapping with the Six Day Struggle of the second movie. Next, they manage to purchase a small plot of land at the side of a busy main road near Bucheon, but their attempts to settle there legally come to nothing when they are unable to get the necessary consents from City Hall. The story of impoverished residents in down-at-heel neighbourhoods battling against the forces of redevelopment is a familiar one which finds echoes throughout South Korea’s post-war development, most recently in the Yongsan tragedy. What is interesting about Kim’s movie is that it was intended as a propaganda piece to help raise funds for the evictees. The documentary ends inconclusively, with the evictees still struggling to find a place to call home, as if calling to the viewer for help. The documentary is not told in an objective third person style; instead the most commonly used pronoun in the voice-over is “we”. The story is told from the inside, with the camera sharing the humble daily lives of the evictees, showing how even in the poorest community, joy can be had through sharing the simple things in life. This would contrast with the narrative presented by the authorities, which would portray the evictees as trouble-makers and barriers to progress.
The 6 Day Struggle at Myeongdong Cathedral feels more detached, while still clearly telling the story from the perspective of the protestors. The movie uses some of Kim’s contemporary footage from 1987 (gathered during the filming of the Sanggyedong documentary), but the main focus of the film is a series of talking head interviews, conducted in 1997 with those involved in the struggle ten years earlier: students, workers, farmers and clergy from the cathedral itself. With the protest being covered by overseas news channels, the issue was clearly a sensitive one for the government of the time, who did not want the bad PR of riot police storming a Catholic cathedral using tear gas, particularly in the run-up to the Seoul Olympics. Additionally, the American embassy had stated publicly that they hoped the situation could be resolved peacefully. All this meant that the authorities had to tread very carefully, and in the end the demonstrators dispersed voluntarily. But the decision to leave rather than dig in until the authorities made concessions was a close-run thing, with the convoluted and extended voting process perhaps influenced by government agents who infiltrated the ranks of the protestors with the aim of sowing dissent. The film was originally commissioned by the various parties involved in the protest at the Cathedral, but in the end they rejected Kim Dong-won’s proposed approach and he ended up financing the documentary himself.
Repatriation is the documentary which put Kim Dong-won on the map internationally, winning the Freedom of Expression Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. As is often the case, fame abroad gave Kim a higher profile domestically too, giving him the opportunity to get the film screened in local theatres. But he was already on the radar of the authorities, having been harassed by the police during the making of the film for suspected violations of the National Security Law. How could it be otherwise? He was consorting with North Koreans, avowed supporters of the DPRK regime, who despite all the pain inflicted by the torturers in Seodaemun Prison in an effort to get them to renounce communism remained loyal to their ideology. They had crossed the border with hostile intent and had got caught. You can see why the more conservative elements in South Korea thought that they should rot in jail until they were converted. But after up to 30 years in prison they were released in the 90s, and their main desire was to be sent home.
Two such North Koreans lived near Kim Dong-won, supported by a community group, giving him the opportunity to film their daily lives. He is introduced to them almost as soon as they are freed from jail and he follows them as they try to build a life in South Korea, though without official citizen status and without any access to state assistance they struggle to earn a living – eventually forming a herbal medicine factory with the help of their support group. Their impoverished lifestyle contrasts sharply with the hero’s welcome that would be their due in Pyongyang. Outside of prison, they try to meet up with other North Koreans or go on picnics together. They manage to find the captain of the mini-submarine which had brought them South on their secret mission. He had succumbed to the torture and “converted”. He now did menial work on a dog meat farm.
This film feels rather personal, with Kim himself narrating the documentary often using the first person, explaining at times how he had to stop filming at particular points. Despite his obvious sympathy and friendship with his subjects, he is not universally uncritical. At one rather fractious event the North Koreans, now hopeful of being repatriated, are confronted by families of South Koreans whose relatives have been abducted by the North Korean authorities. The North Koreans refuse to agree to take letters to the abductees North of the DMZ. They refuse to believe in any such abductions, holding to the party line that any South Koreans in the North are staying their voluntarily. In a rare personal intervention, Kim says he thought they were being unreasonable.
The documentary, at 148 minutes, is very long, but does not outstay its welcome simply because of the fascinating story it tells. Although the timing of the mooted repatriation was during Kim Dae-jung’s sunshine policy of engagement with the North, there were nevertheless vocal conservative forces who opposed such a unilateral gesture of reconciliation when so much remained unresolved. Even if you know in advance whether the repatriations ever took place, the documentary retains its interest in quietly following the daily lives of these fish-out-water individuals.
The final Kim Dong-won documentary to be shown was Jung Il-woo, My Friend. Jung was an American Jesuit priest who was posted to Seoul in the late 1950s, where he taught at Sogang University. He gave up the security of this post, deciding instead to devote his life to ministering to the marginalised in Korean society.
Perhaps this life-changing decision could have been examined more deeply: we are left wondering as to the thought process Fr Jung went through, for example whether it was after a long, agonised internal struggle or whether it was a more straightforward decision. But from that point forward we follow Jung’s life amount the poor and disadvantaged, first among the shanty-town dwellers along the banks of the Cheonggyecheon in central Seoul, then some years later, among the inhabitants of Sanggyedong, and later experimenting with organic farming in a remote rural region.
Fr Jung was clearly a remarkable man, at ease with the poorest in society as well as being a close confidant of Cardinal Kim, leader of the Korean Catholic Church. In Kim Dong-Won’s affectionate documentary he comes across both as saintly and entirely earthly, enjoying a robust laugh and generous amounts of alcohol. One of the most striking elements of the voiceover is the fact that probably the most commonly used pronoun is “you”. Kim Dong-won is addressing his friend personally, as if the movie is a personal tribute to the man who meant a lot to him.
It was an illuminating series of documentaries, and in the Q+As Director Kim was unnecessarily self-deprecating about the quality of the earlier documentaries, particularly in relation to the subtitles. One of the lessons documentary makers will have learned from the two weekends is never to throw away any footage. It is remarkable what Kim has managed to achieve from probably what amounts to thousands of hours of footage filmed over the course of his long career. Much of the time he may have been uncertain as to the use to which each scene was going to be put, or if a coherent full-length piece could ever be created out of what he was filming, almost by habit, as part of his daily routine. But the results provide fascinating insights not only into the process of film-making but also into important issues which are part of modern Korea’s social fabric.