On the big screen: feminism in action

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On the big screen: feminism in action

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Lee Hye-gyeong, 53, speaks quietly and demurely. But behind the meek demeaner lurks an enforcer: Don’t try to get around her women-director-only rule for the festival’s opening film.
It took two decades for Ms. Lee, a director of Women’s Film Festival in Seoul, to tread the path from naive teenager to feminist leader.
And leader she is: Ms. Lee was the winner of the Women’s Activist Award 2003, the prize handed to the most militant feminist Korean women can find on International Women’s Day.
Ms. Lee is from the early generation of Korea’s feminist movement. She went to college in the early 1970s, years before the word “feminism” was on every Korean woman’s refrigerator magnets.
Like many feminist scholars of her age, Ms. Lee was politicized only after her personal struggles forced her to confront the social issues her peers were dealing with.
Her major turning point came when she was a teenage girl traveling with friends and facing threats from men on the road.
“I never thought one’s gender could restrict a person’s freedom before,” Ms. Lee said. “I grew up in a liberal Christian family. We all went to see operas every Sunday. We were free to raise our voice whenever we had a thing to say in the family. It was very democratic. But my experiences on the road inevitably made me defensive. It led me to think that I’d never be safe unless I was under someone else’s protection.”
Instead of traveling, Ms. Lee says she spent most of her college years “drinking my father’s whiskey and reading books at home.”
The door to feminism was opened by Simone de Beauvoir, the French author of the “The Second Sex,” often cited as the feminist bible by women of Ms. Lee’s generation.
“That was [the answer],” she said. “Her theory that women are not born, but made, led me to rethink the entire history of women’s oppression as well as my own struggle.”
After majoring in sociology at college, Ms. Lee went to Berlin to study arts sociology, looking at society through art. She married a doctor and had children.
In 1992, she formed a theater troupe made up mostly of women; the troupe became a part of the Feminist Artists Network. To test the waters in the theater scene, the group staged a performance of the play “A Room of One’s Own,” by Virginia Woolf. The performance was a smash hit. Tickets to the show were sold out for eight months, something almost unheard of for plays in Daehangno.
“It was incredible,” she said. “People in the theater scene couldn’t believe what they were seeing. They had called us the ‘scary women who invaded Daehangno.’ All those years, we were waiting for the right time to speak out, but when the play succeeded we knew we were a step behind. The audience was way ahead of us. They knew already that women needed a room of their own in order to survive.”
The following year, she put together another play production, “Go Alone Like Mussos Horn,” a story based on the best-selling novel of the same title by the woman writer Gong Ji-young. The story deals with three women’s search for independence.
Years later, the network staged Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues”; they also opened “Witch,” a theater for feminist plays.
By the mid-1990s, however, Ms. Lee and virtually everyone else in the scene could see that the heyday for plays was coming to an end.
In 1997, she took a lead role in launching the Women’s Film Festival in Seoul, one of the first and largest feminist film festivals in Asia.
The show, which originally began as a biannual event, is now an established venue, screening an average of 80 to 120 films a year, though it’s still far smaller than some of the domestic film festivals such as Busan or PiFan that are sponsored by regional governments.
Yet the Women’s Film Festival has one of the highest seat occupation rates of any international film festival in Korea, mainly because its tickets aren’t wasted on inviting VIPs and because there is a healthy base of fans who return to the festival every year. It’s also the largest international film festival in Seoul, which helps it attract a great deal of attention.
The festival’s eighth run, which opens on Thursday, hosts dozens of films from countries around the world, starting with a documentary on a group of women from Cameroon who are fighting a legal battle against abusive men.
It may sound heavy ― a common criticism of the festival is that it is “too academic” ― but tickets for the opening film were sold out in eight minutes when they went on sale online last week.
The festival, however, hadn’t always been so successful. During its second run in 1999, it nearly collapsed when the organizers struggled to secure corporate sponsors due to the Asian exchange crisis.
“The night before the press conference, the festival’s committee members came to my house and said we should call off the conference the next day,” Ms. Lee said. “They didn’t think we could afford another festival with the money we had in our pocket. I insisted on going ahead, saying we should do it even if I had to sell my house. But frankly, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have to sell my house.”
Since then, the average number of audience members has almost tripled.
Still, the festival’s reputation for delving into issues such as women’s sexuality and lesbianism makes it difficult to find corporate sponsors.
“It comes down to an issue of sensibility,” Lee said. “When I sit down for meetings with corporate executives, their vision is still limited to ‘pure women.’ That contradicts our goal, which is to create and expand a new sense of social ethics.”
“That’s a feminist aesthetic,” she added.


by Park Soo-mee
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