‘One people’ from Alaska to Zimbabwe

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‘One people’ from Alaska to Zimbabwe

In an age when documentary filmmaking is something of a dying art, producers of the “Han Minjok Report” cling to tradition.
The program delves into the lives of overseas Koreans, or their descendants, who left the peninsula and made their homes in foreign lands as early as two centuries ago.
Every Monday at midnight, the KBS-TV program delivers stories of Koreans living abroad: a volunteer doctor, a missionary, a social activist. Many of them endured great hardship away from home to reach their current lot in life, in return for little more than personal success.
The show also covers ethnic Koreans who are famous, such as Jeanette Lee, the Korean-American billiards player; Margaret Cho, the stand-up comedian; and Na Yun-seon, a jazz musician based in Paris.
The essence of the program is showing how Korean migrants have assimilated into foreign communities. With the character as the central part of each story, the narrator weaves in historical and cultural background from each particular country to reveal how the immigrants adapted to the unfamiliar landscape of their adopted country.
Audience response to the show has been consistent. By fostering a strong base among nighttime viewers over the course of its 218 episodes, “Han Minjok” has earned ratings as high as 10 percent, compared to the 15- to 20-percent ratings that prime-time news attracts on the same channel.
More important, the program has been on the air for over four years. In an industry where TV programs come and go quick as a flash, that kind of longevity is laudable in and of itself.
“It can easily confine you to certain frames,” says Jang Gang-bok, a senior producer for the program, explaining the difficulty of finding the right candidate to fit the documentary’s scope. “But it could also broaden your horizon quite a bit.”
Considering that most of the staff with Third Vision, the collective responsible for producing “Han Minjok,” have never lived abroad for an extended time, the program’s often-sophisticated handling of its subjects is praiseworthy.
Producers and camera crews spend, on average, six to eight months each year away from home. The program has covered Koreans living in such locales as Spain, Kosovo, Indonesia, Switzerland, Zimbabwe, Paraguay, Argentina, Afghanistan and Ethiopia.
An important aspect of the program is documenting earlier generations of Korean immigrants who were turned away by their homeland.
A typical example, which the Han Minjok team explored in 2000, was the story of the descendants of Korean immigrants to Mexico and Cuba in the 1920s, known as “Henequens.” The tale of these laborers, who were named for the henequen, or agave plantations where they worked, remained practically hidden for nearly a century, blotted by Korea’s fear of disturbing diplomatic relations with the United States, whose thorny relationship with Fidel Castro prevented the Korean government from embracing Korean-Cubans.
It was revealed much later that the Koreans in Mexico and Cuba contributed a significant portion of their earnings to support Korea’s independence movement during the Japanese occupation.
Third Vision has also produced documentaries on the descendants of Korean independence activists who were exiled to Russia when Korea entered Japanese hands; Koreans who moved to Hawaiian sugar plantations at the turn of the century, construction workers in Saudi Arabia, taxi drivers in Alaska, and miners and nurses dispatched to Germany as part of President Park Chung Hee’s ambitious plan to attract foreign currency.
The story about nurses in Germany sparked outrage among local viewers, after the program revealed for the first time that the Korean government had hid from the public that these nurses were being sent to hospitals contaminated by contagious lung diseases. Through their project, producers also found that the Korean government skimmed a sizable portion of the nurses’ and miners’ income through Germany’s Commerzbank, using the funds to build an iron and steel factory in Korea.
“Many of the Koreans we’ve met abroad were extremely hardworking and brilliant, risking their lives,” says Mr. Jang, adding that program staff are aware of the danger of falling into an “ethnic superiority” mode when portraying individual Koreans on the show.
Indeed, the program has been criticized at times for focusing too much on nationalist sentiment, based on the powerful notion of ethnic ties through blood lines. Even the title, “Han Minjok” ― or “one people” in Korean ― has raised questions about the emphasis on homogeneity in Korean culture.
A more commonplace concern is that some characters in “Han Minjok” are not “authentically” Korean, mostly because they were raised abroad or don’t share part of the common Korean mentality.
One of the more frequent complaints lodged on the program’s online bulletin board is that some characters on the show speak in foreign languages. It seems some viewers think that overseas Koreans ought to be able to speak their native language if they’re being treated as a full-fledged national.
With stories like the Henequen, the producers say they struggled for weeks to decide whether the Mexican descendants qualified as Han Minjok.
“Following the sixth generation of intermarriage, the [current] generation now possesses only about one-sixteenth Korean blood,” Mr. Jang says. “But some of them still sing ‘Arirang’ and keep Korean flags that were passed on from their ancestors. Yet technically, you are not considered a Korean national if you don’t carry a local passport.”
The team opted to go ahead with the subject based on a consensus that what matters is a Korean identity, not the formal constructs of one’s status, such as citizenship or race.
“It’s difficult,” Mr. Jang says. “We try to be flexible on the notion of who’s a Korean national. But it’s true that we also have to think in terms of the boundary we were given; otherwise we have to change the title of the show, which would be a different story.”


by Park Soo-mee
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