An independent voice keeps the faithIndependent filmmaker Kim Dong-won based his most recent documentary, “Songhwan” (Repatriation), on a radical premise: Not all North Koreans want to live in South Korea.
Mr. Kim encountered the chance to shoot the film by accident in 1992, when political prisoners were set free in South Korea. For refusing to give up their pro-North Korean ideologies, these prisoners, either North Korean spies or prisoners of the Korean War, were forced to spend decades in prison.
After their unexpected release, these gray-haired men had nowhere to go. A group of social activists, who were also good friends of Mr. Kim’s, asked him to help find places for them to stay.
Mr. Kim brought along his video camera out of habit before he met the former prisoners. The moment he saw the ragtag group, he decided to make a film about them.
Twelve years later, his portrait of these men earned him the Freedom of Expression award, which honors a film that deals with a pressing social issue, at the Sundance Film Festival in Salt Lake City, Utah, in January.
“They had this naive look on their faces,” Mr. Kim said last Friday in his rundown office in Sindaebang-dong, southwestern Seoul. “They were not so different from us, though this society treated them like monsters. But that naive look on their faces ― it made me wonder what was behind their stand for the great cause that they would keep the faith for so long, against all odds.”
While housing the former political prisoners, Mr. Kim befriended them and decided to help send them back home to North Korea. In the film, he refers to the former prisoners as “seonsaengnim,” literally meaning “teacher” but used as an honorific to show respect.
The film also includes footage of right-wingers who criticize the prisoners’ desire to go back to the North. One of the most intense scenes involves an elderly card-carrying conservative saying, “Down with the Commies,” who gets into a fight with one of the North Koreans.
Daily chronicle of men’s lives
Until the former prisoners returned to the North as heroes in 2000, Mr. Kim recorded every single day of the men’s lives in South Korean society. He admits that he became teary-eyed when he had to bid them good-bye, not knowing when they would meet again.
Ahn Hak-seop, a former North Korean spy who was in “Repatriation,” praised Mr. Kim for his sensitivity. “I have to thank Kim Dong-won for putting in such efforts to tell the true story about us. ‘Repatriation’ tells stories about North and South Korea just as they are.”
Through his film, Mr. Kim showed that this part of the “axis of evil” actually has a human face.
“I wanted to show the United States is responsible for driving North Korea far to the edge. Not all of North Koreans are evil, as you see in my film,” he told festival-goers at Sundance.
Now that his work has gained wide recognition, Mr. Kim hopes to eventually film a sequel to “Repatriation,” in a reunified homeland.
Turning point in career
The international award is just one of the many highlights of Mr. Kim’s 18-year career as an independent film director.
He first entered the mainstream movie industry in 1982 and gained experience as an assistant director, but went the independent film route in 1986, after a friend who was an activist asked him to film police officers who had been dispatched to Sanggye-dong, northeast of the capital, where the government was trying to eradicate the ghettos before the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, but the residents were resisting. His friend wanted the footage as evidence in a lawsuit against the government.
The riot police, armed with sticks and iron shields, were everywhere, and bulldozers and cranes were brought in to push out the slum residents. Watching a police officer knock down a woman with a baby on her back, Mr. Kim, who had previously paid little attention to social issues, decided to abandon his dream of being the Steven Spielberg of Korea and use the camera for justice.
The next day, Mr. Kim moved to the ghetto to live with the residents for three years. In 1989, “Sanggye-dong Olympic” became Mr. Kim’s debut in then-fledgling independent film scene.
After watching the film, Lee Jang-ho, an art movie director whom Mr. Kim was assisting, said, “My friend, you found the right thing to do.”
From then on, Mr. Kim has turned his lens upon Korea’s social outcasts, such as disabled people in “Mommy, Daddy, You Can Do It!” and another series about slum eradication projects.
He started to take part in demonstrations against the military regime of the 1980s, enduring riot police’s beatings. “The more I was driven into pain, the more I was convinced that I had the right cause to fight for and against,” Mr. Kim said.
He’s taken a more active role in other ways ― Mr. Kim made his screen debut in “Repatriation.” As the first-person narrator, Mr. Kim makes quite a few appearances in the film.
“A documentary is not necessarily an absolute truth,” Mr. Kim said with a smile. “Every film is destined to follow the viewpoint of its director, and a documentary cannot be an exception. By using the first-person viewpoint, I wanted to let the audience know that this is just my film from my point of view.”
The government back in 1993, however, did not like Mr. Kim’s views very much. When they found out he was working on a documentary about the political prisoners, a diplomatically sensitive issue at the time, Mr. Kim was arrested on charges of violating the National Security Law.
The arrest kept him from visiting his best friends in Pyeongyang in 2001, even though he had an official invitation that had been approved by the South Korean government.
Now cleared of the charges, Mr. Kim said he does not understand why he was arrested in the first place.
“I just wanted to deliver the message that no matter what, we have to meet as brethren, north or south,” Mr. Kim said.
Insisting that he is far from being a left-winger, Mr. Kim added with a smile, “I closed books by Marx after turning only a few pages. The hardest part when making friends with the former political prisoners was they sometimes tried to teach me that North Korea is the most ideal country on Earth, when I’m critical about the North Korean political setup.”
However, his father, who fled to the South during the Korean War as a refugee, would have accused his son of being a communist sympathizer after seeing “Repatriation.” Mr. Kim begins his film by saying, “My father, who was a right-winger, would get angry at this film.” Mr. Kim frequently fought and argued with his father, who thought that the communists brainwashed his son.
But the father could not change his son’s mind. “After filming ‘Repatriation,’ I am all the more convinced that what’s important in our lives is to keep our idealism until the end. We all dream of at least once in our youth for a better society where everyone lives happily,” Mr. Kim said.
“Only then, every one of us can have the naive look of the former political prisoners. What I saw from them was a hope, that any one of us can do that, keeping the faith, if we learn to have critical faculties to judge what’s truly right and wrong.”
Mr. Kim added, “But I know that keeping the faith is also one of the hardest thing to do in our daily lives.”
by Chun Su-jin