First-person narratives screen at festival of documentaries

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First-person narratives screen at festival of documentaries

Director Kim Myeong-jun’s film “Our School” is a documentary about a school in Japan run by the pro-North Korea General Association of Korean Residents. It produces both laughter and tears. Unlike most documentaries, the film is a first-person narrative.
It is unusual for this kind of documentary to be shown in movie theaters, but this and a similar documentary, director Choiha Dong-ha’s “Taxi Blues,” are being shown during the sixth Seoul Independent Documentary Festival at the Seoul Art Cinema in Jongno, Seoul.
“Our School” is scheduled to be screened today. The documentary chronicles a year in the life of senior students at a high school on Hokkaido island, in Japan. The film won the Unpa Award for best documentary at the Pusan International Film Festival recently. Because the school is run by the pro-North Korea General Association of Korean Residents, some people may prejudge it, but the documentary genuinely illustrates the school community and its atmosphere. Korean residents founded the school after Korea was liberated from Japan. Isolated from the rest of Japanese society, the school teaches Korean language and culture. The teachers are earnest, the students live in dormitories and bond with each other, and school events are not only for students but also other Korean residents.
The school is not recognized as a regular school and its degrees are not accepted elsewhere. The school is also disadvantaged when it participates in sports competitions with other high schools. Each year, before the seniors travel to North Korea, they experience an increase in tension as rightists in Japan protest the plan and issue threats.
There are internal problems as well. Female students have to wear Korean traditional jackets and skirts in winter unlike the male students who wear Western-style uniforms. The language the students and teachers use is a dialect different from those used in both North or South Korea. Although there is no relationship with South Korea, some teachers are preparing to sit the Test of Proficiency in Korean.
Mr. Kim lived in the school for one year while filming after two years of preparation. In the film, students occasionally address the camera as “Brother Myeong-jun” or “Director Myeong-jun.” In the film, Mr. Kim plays a minor role and the narration is done from his point of view. Naturally, the viewers can relate to not only the students but also the director in the film.
“While I was filming, I wanted to be a member of the community, but I realized that as the director, I couldn’t do that,” Mr. Kim said. “Through the narration, I tried to convey what I felt.”
Hong Hyo-suk, programmer of the Pusan International Film Festival, said first-person documentaries were “a new trend” in Korea. “They can bring the director’s truthful point of view to the viewers.”
In 2004, “Repatriation” by Kim Dong-won attracted 35,000 viewers, a record for Korean documentary film, and “Between” by Lee Chang-jae, lured 20,000 viewers. Both are good examples of the trend, Ms. Hong said.
Mr. Choiha’s “Taxi Blues” has an experimental element, in addition to its first-person narration. The director drove a taxi on a part-time basis and met new customers every day, which gave him the idea for the film. The taxi passengers, filmed by a camera installed inside the taxi, are very diverse. The camera, which shows the director’s perspective, also portrays the weary daily life of the director. Some customers did not like being filmed, so their scenes were re-enacted by actors.
The Seoul Independent Documentary Festival ( at the Seoul Art Cinema features 27 Korean and foreign documentaries and continues until tomorrow. Screenings start at 11 a.m. and the last film each day starts at 8 p.m. For more information, call (02) 362-3163.

by Lee Hoo-nam
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