[Newsmaker] Film fest shifts focus to North Korean defectors’ soul-searching
North Korean Human Rights International Film Fest boosted by films shot by foreign directors in North Korea, says director Lee Min-yong
According to director Lee Min-yong, this was a watershed year for the North Korean Human Rights International Film Festival, with a record number of audiences and films offering diverse perspectives on the lives of both North Koreans and defectors.
The sixth edition of the film festival, which took place at the Daehan Cinema in central Seoul from Oct. 21-23, was launched in 2011 to inform the world of the gross human rights violations occurring in the North.
In the beginning, the films had a “clear, straightforward message,” Lee told The Korea Herald in an interview last week. Lee, 58, has been a judge at the film fest since its inaugural year.
In past years, the submitted films mainly focused on depicting the scope of inhumane practices under the dictatorial regime, allowing viewers to see it on the big screen “loud and clear.”
“It was about exposing the isolation of life in North Korea, about the realities of its oppressive regime,” said Lee. “Many of the submitted works showed prison camps housing political prisoners and the torture taking place there.”
Works screened at the past festivals also traced stories of North Korean defectors who risked their lives to escape from their “hellish” lives, crossing the border and often taking bullets in the process.
This year, submissions reflected more diverse perspectives, Lee said, as filmmakers started to focus on the lives of North Koreans in the South post-defection. Some 30,000 North Korean defectors live in the South, as of June, according to the Unification Ministry.
“They looked into the defector community here, their torn sense of identity, and the hardship of trying to fit into a very modern and very different society.”
The film festival saw a total of 15 films screened over three days.
Kim Tae-woong’s short film “The Regular Hire,” for example, tells the story of a 24-year-old defector who has lived 16 years in Korea and struggles to be a normal office worker here.
Two foreign films shot inside North Korea -- David Kinsella’s “The Wall,” a computer graphic-infused story of a girl from Pyongyang who wants to be a poet, and Vitaly Mansky’s “Under the Sun,” a documentary which follows a North Korean family training to be ideal patriots -- also gave the film fest a significant boost this year, said Lee.
In a country where North Korean issues are intertwined tightly with politics, Lee says human rights should “transcend conservatives and liberals.”
There are movements around the world that strive to bring attention to the human rights violations going on in North Korea, Lee noted.
“The fact that they are trying to stand up for people they’ve never met, in a country that has nothing to do with them. … I think that should be applauded.”
Through the film festival, Lee said, he hopes to contribute to efforts that may hopefully “one day open up” the communist nation.
Rugged path as filmmaker
As a director, Lee’s path has not been a smooth one. He made his big screen debut with “A Hot Roof” in 1995, which nabbed him the best new director award in major Korean film festivals that year.
The film depicted diverse characters in a middle-class apartment building during hot summer days. It was lauded for highlighting women’s lives and capturing the voices of female characters through a story about domestic violence.
But his passion for social causes, Lee said, put an abrupt end to his acclaim as a filmmaker.
“I had this big goal of making a movie about Dokdo,” said Lee, referring to the East Sea islets that are at the center of a territorial dispute between Korea and Japan. “I wanted to dramatize how the Japanese tried to take over Dokdo in the 1950s,” after the end of the Japanese colonial era, said Lee.
He poured all his efforts into making the film, visiting the island and meeting with major local film studios to persuade them to invest in his venture.
“But every single executive I met said the exact same thing,” Lee said. “They said, ‘It’s too politically sensitive.’ They were worried that their branches in Japan would be negatively impacted if they invested in this movie.”
Looking back, Lee believes the “smart thing” to do would have been to “know when to stop” and redirect his efforts toward less controversial, more popular subject matters.
“But I kept going. I set up my own film company and spent 10 years trying to make it happen.”
Eventually, Lee gave up on the Dokdo film. But he still gravitates toward historical subjects, he has planned a film that revolves around independence fighter Yun Bong-gil, who set off a bomb that killed several Japanese dignitaries in the Shanghai International Settlement in 1932, during the Japanese colonial rule of Korea.
This time, instead of looking for big investors, Lee plans to ask the public for help.
“We’re going to start a crowdfunding campaign for the movie on Nov. 7,” he said. The campaign will be available on crowdfunding website Wadiz.
“It was one of the most exhilarating events in the history of the Korean independence movement,” Lee said. A little weary after 10 years of pursuing passion projects, but still imbued with a sense of purpose and newfound hope, Lee seems ready for his next big piece.
By Rumy Doo (firstname.lastname@example.org)