Learning how to use their eyes instead of their bodiesMi-kyung (an alias) presses her green baseball cap down over her brow and scowls.
“Why are you asking that question?,” she says. “I don’t want to answer it.”
Talking about her past isn’t easy for her. Only 26, Mi-kyung is a former prostitute. She lives with 22 other former sex workers, none of whom are over 30, in Eunsungwon, a home for working girls who want to leave the profession. The house, which is in Singil-dong, western Seoul, teaches women new occupations and skills and provides counseling to help them get on with their lives.
It also has turned the women into film directors.
Mi-kyung and three other Eunsungwon residents were provided camcorders to make films or documentaries that would allow them to express their feelings and experiences through a powerful visual medium.
“We thought that it would be more effective to make films or documentaries in order to communicate with more people,” said Cho Seok Soon-ae (she uses both her parents’ last names), adding that because the issue of prostitution is so private, street protests by sex workers have little impact.
Ms. Cho Seok is one of the women who introduced Mi-kyung to film-making. She is a staff member of Wom, a “feminist video activist group” that in 2004 made a documentary about the lives of prostitutes. (The name “Wom” is supposed to represent the word “woman” being freed of its “man.”) The film was used to educate “Johns” about the consequences of their actions.
Wom then came back to the house to run a three-month workshop to teach the women how to use the camcorders, plan a short film and edit their work. Mi-kyung and the three other women have since made four documentaries and one collaborative work.
The results have been surprising, even to Wom’s staff members. The films are touching, powerful and deeply personal. The directors, however, are still camera-shy; the films, along with a “making-of” documentary made by Chang Young-sook, a staff member of Eunsungwon, was shown to a select group of journalists and public officials.
Mi-kyung’s piece, titled “My Story, My Life,” is about the former prostitutes living at Eunsungwon. “I actually planned to talk about my life,” she said. Then she decided she still wasn’t ready to do so, and filmed a story about her friends. “I wanted to show various lives in the world through my documentary. Although we all had same job, the experience was very different for each person.”
The documentary subjects are far from sexy. Mi-kyung appears in one wearing a jogging suit and without make-up. She looks very young, and could easily be mistaken for a typical college freshman.
One of the women featured in her piece is A-young (also an alias). In the film, A-young talks about how she never had free time when she was a prostitute, because wherever she went, she was with other prostitutes or the “guards.” She was also under round-the-clock surveillance.
“I only wanted to drink soju [a hard liquor] at night at a pojangmacha [street stall] with my friends,” A-young says in the film. After escaping the brothel, A-young hid in her friend’s house, not going outside for a month because she was so afraid of meeting people. “It was probably my imagination, but I felt people on the street were looking at me strangely,” she said.
Mi-kyung said A-young’s experience was far worse than her own. “I didn’t know she had such a horrible time until I talked with her for this documentary,” she said.
Before she began working on the documentary, Mi-kyung had assumed that people living in Eunsungwon might have had similar experiences, so she didn’t bother to try to learn about their lives. Mi-kyung, in fact, doesn’t like talking much about anything (and that includes interviews with reporters). But in order to have her friends open up in front of a videocamera, Mi-kyung had to talk about herself first.
“I sat on the floor and started eating snacks and talking about myself. I asked the others if they had had similar experiences. Then they started talking, and eventually they didn’t even care that they were being taped,” she said. “I had to cut out a lot of scenes because it was so vivid, so honest that I thought my friends wouldn’t want it to be shared with total strangers.” She edited the 120 minutes of footage into a feature only nine minutes long.
When asked how long she was a sex worker, Mi-kyung says it was only a year, then adds that all former sex workers say the same thing. She said that these days she visits her family on weekends, but doesn’t plan to live with them, at least for the time being.
“I have a good relationship with my family. But we don’t actually talk about my past,” Mi-kyung said. She added that she won’t live with her parents for fear of the brothel owners showing up and causing trouble.
“Although everything has been taken care of with the brothel, I feel always uneasy at home knowing that [her former boss] could come to my house and make trouble. I don’t want my family to go through that,” she said. “I know I can’t take that time out of my life, but I want to at least forget about it.”
The documentaries the women made were shown once at the Dongsoong Art Center in Daehangno, northern Seoul, in late September, but only to a select audience: former prostitutes living in other shelters, officials from the Ministry of Gender Equality, and staff members of feminist groups, including the Korea Women’s Associations United. The four women were so nervous that they took tranquilizers before going up on stage.
“It wasn’t easy, some of them tried to back out several times,” Ms. Chang said. “But they finally went outside and faced the audience.”
One of the four, Young-jin (like all the women, she used an alias), 21, ventured out of Eunsungwon to make her documentary, meeting people unrelated to the sex business. Her piece, titled “A Grandmother on the Street,” is about a woman in her 60s who ekes out a living gathering boxes and bottles on the street to sell. She has been collecting garbage over the five years since her husband’s business failed. Young-jin followed the elderly woman from early morning to late at night for two days.
“After filming this documentary, I started looking at things that I had never noticed before,” Young-jin said. “I didn’t recognize that there’s a person right next to me who makes her living selling garbage,” said Young-jin. “The experience changed me. I was passive, very quiet, and didn’t say a word when someone asked me a question. Even now I don’t completely express what I think, but at least I’m answering your questions. Also, if something bad happens to me, I just thought that ‘Oh well, it’s me,’ and pushed myself to the end of the precipice. But now, I try to think positive, and if something bad happens, I think ‘That can happen to anyone’.”
Though all teenagers lack self-confidence, Young-jin was particularly fragile. She grew up in a poor family in a poor village ― she said her hometown in North Chungcheung province didn’t even have street lights. She had to live with her aunt in the next village just to go to high school, but she never graduated. Her aunt was rarely home and she didn’t get along with her parents. She began working in a brothel at the age of 17.
She’s now strong enough to deal with rejection: She had originally wanted to make a film about another elderly person, a woman in her 70s who paints calendars. The woman refused.
Instead of giving up on the film, Young-jin tried to persuade the other old woman. The woman wasn’t partial to the idea either: she was reluctant to star in Young-jin’s debut work, and even after agreeing to do so after Young-jin kept asking, she wasn’t happy about it. But Young-jin didn’t give it up ― something her old self would have done at the start.
“The future matters,” Ms. Chang said. “Even when I counsel my friends, I rarely ask them about the past.” She said the documentary that the four filmed was a reward for their bravery, and that they wanted to show it to other sex workers, who might be inspired by the story.
“Having learned about the media, I want to work as a multimedia graphic designer,” said Young-jin. “I passed the qualification exam for a high-school diploma, and it’s time for me to get to work.”
These days, she studies art for eight hours a week, computers for nine hours and attends a media education institute. She also teaches the residents of Eunsungwon about computers for about five hours a week.
Eunsungwon is preparing another big project: next month it will publish a book of the residents’ stories. But once again, the audience will be limited to sex workers. “The book will show them that they can do something,” Ms. Chang said.
by Park Sung-ha