Desperate mothers, a film director and the school at the center of it all
In September 2017, a mother of a child with developmental disabilities fell to her knees and begged her community to allow a “special school” to be built in western Seoul’s Gangseo District.
Dozens of other mothers followed her lead during the second session of an open community debate on whether or not the school should be built in Gayang-dong. Their neighbors responded by telling them to “stop putting on a show.”
The agenda had been discussed long before the first debate was held in July 2017, but the picture of the kneeling mothers shocked the country and opened many people's eyes to the issues surrounding social welfare in Korea, in particular, the government's neglect of people with disabilities.
After the story went viral, multiple petitions were signed and various organizations such as political parties and welfare unions issued official statements, which led to the Ministry of Education finalizing the establishment of Seojin School in December 2017. The government also promised to build 22 additional special-needs schools across the country by 2022.
Among those unaware of the plight of the mothers was director Kim Jung-in, who attended the debate and decided to shoot a documentary film on the topic which he titled “A Long Way to School.”
“A Long Way to School,” which documents the journey to open the Seojin School for people with disabilities, hit local theaters on May 5, or Children’s Day in Korea. The 99-minute film follows the Gangseo District mothers' fighting for the rights of their children, as well as their daily lives. The film is the first in Korea to deal with special-needs schools, and also the first to document the difficulties families of children with developmental disabilities face in Korea.
“I wasn’t particularly interested in the special-needs school issue, but I happened to go to the second community debate in September 2017 after I read a short article on the first debate,” said director Kim. “My daughter reached an age where she had to go to elementary school and I became curious about educational problems that children face. The article reported that when the first debate took place it was sabotaged by people against the school. Normally, I would have just forgotten about it but for some reason the thought of these children struggling to go to school deeply resonated with me.”
In 2013, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education announced that it would renovate an old building which was once Gongjin Elementary School, a state-run school that was forced to move to a different location due to lack of students and establish the Seojin School for people with special needs.
There are 182 special-needs schools in Korea and one in Gangseo District. Most of the existing schools are over-enrolled so families are often left with no choice but to attend schools far from their homes to access appropriate care for their children.
The announcement was met with fierce opposition from residents, with 1,400 people signing a petition to abolish the plan in October 2017, arguing that a special-needs school will bring housing prices in the area down.
Then-regional Rep. Kim Sung-tae of the Liberty Korea Party (now People Power Party) further exacerbated the backlash but promising residents he would build a traditional medicine clinic on the grounds instead. This lead to the residents arguing that they “weren’t against a special-needs school, but just for a traditional medicine clinic.” Gangseo District is the birthplace of historical doctor Heo Jun (1539-1615) and the district has founded the Heo Jun Museum and the Heo Jun Street in his honor. Rep. Kim argued that the traditional medicine clinic would also serve the same purpose.
Despite the residents’ claims that they were not against a special-needs school, placards and posters were erected on every corner of the neighborhood with slogans saying a special-needs school “will kill the residents of Gayang-dong” and that the residents deserved “a better life.”
The first open debate on July 6, 2017 was attended by the resident representatives, the Korea Organization for Parents of the Disabled, public officials as well as Cho Hee-yeon, the governor of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education. Local residents refused to let the parents or governor Cho talk, with some resorting to violence by throwing chairs and trying to physically pull them down from the podium.
“When schools open or they start a new semester, you seen placards congratulating them,” said one of the mothers in the film. “I wish I knew what that felt like.”
The article that director Kim first read ended with the information that the second debate would take place on Sept. 5. Without any plan, Kim arrived with a camera to witness the event for himself. He recorded it all — the taunts from the crowd, the tears of the mothers and the moment they fell to their knees.
“It was surreal, everything just seemed unreal,” he said, reminiscing back to the day of the debate. “The hall was filled with curses, insults and screams all aimed at the mothers and their children, while the mothers stood on the podium firmly explaining why they needed a school despite all the opposition. Then and there, I thought that I wanted to make a documentary on the parents and that’s where I began.”
He called the Association of Parents of the Disabled in Gangseo District (translated) and told them he wanted to make a feature film about them. They “jumped at the chance, because they were grateful for any coverage,” according to the mothers. However, they doubted the film would even make it to theaters.
“We are such a minority group,” said Lee Eun-ja, whose daughter Ji-hyeon has autism. Lee served as the first president of the Association of Parents of the Disabled in Gangseo District. “There are approximately 200,000 people with developmental disabilities in Korea and the number of young children is even smaller than that. So when the director came to us and gave a big presentation, we thought, ‘Can you make a story out of us?’ Plus, he was just a student at the Korean National University of Arts studying film without any backing of a company or anything. But he was so confident.”
Although Kim reassured the parents, he was secretly skeptical about his own capabilities. He was fortunate enough to receive funding from different organizations to cover the production costs, but as a director, Kim had his own fears — that he might not be able to capture the lives of the children and their families properly or that he might not be able to deliver the whole story of Seojin School from a fair perspective. Overall, he gave himself four out of five stars for “A Long Way to School,” docking himself a star for not getting to “properly show the children spending time with their families.”
“I was determined to make sure that this movie didn’t just show the over-heated argument about the Seojin School without explaining both sides of the story or pointing fingers at anyone; I think personally, such movies are a failure. I learned about the reasons why the residents were against the school and I wanted everyone to think calmly about both sides of the argument. If we just blame one particular person and move onto the next issue, then nothing really changes. But in that process, I didn’t get enough time to properly show the lives of the families. Personally, I believe documentaries over 90 minutes are a sin,” he said, jokingly.
The film goes back three decades ago to early the 1990s when the government constructed a large-scale rent-controlled apartment complex in the then-unoccupied region, attracting citizens from the lower-end of the earning spectrum. The current residents were reluctant to send their children to Gongjin Elementary School, the designated school for students nearby the apartment complex, citing that they didn't want their kids to interact with the children of the lower-income families. This resulted in decreased number of students and ultimately, its shutdown. Gangseo residents blamed the government for ruining the reputation of the neighborhood.
To make sure he included both sides of the story, director Kim bought news clips and footage from the media for parts of the story that he could not film himself. He still receives what he sarcastically refers to as “love letters,” from residents and Kim Sung-tae’s office demanding that he takes out all parts that include the residents, the placards and other information that “is biased and twists the facts.”
In addition to the thorough investigation, “A Long Way to School” also offers an insight into raising a child with developmental disabilities, namely autism. The film shows how the mothers compliment the littlest things their children do and guide them when they misbehave, as well as the time they spend together, whether for social purposes or pushing for social change, when their children are at school. Most importantly, the film gives a voice to the mothers, who have been battling with themselves and their children from the moment of their diagnosis.
“We have to compliment everything because otherwise, all they would hear is that they’re not doing anything right,” said Kim Nam-yeon, the head of the Seoul office of the Korea Organization for Parents of the Disabled. “If you see them from ‘a normal person's point of view, they do nothing right. All we end up telling them is ‘Don’t shout,’ ‘Don’t run around,’ ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Don’t do that.’ But they’re human beings so always being disciplined makes them feel bad. To be honest, I couldn’t do it at first. But it has to become a habit. And when I learned to do it from therapy sessions, I saw my child change.”
But it didn’t come easily, the two mothers said. Accepting a child with disabilities is much more than just making it through everyday life. They said they had to learn to live with their children, teach them, balance their life with other family members, fight social prejudices, learn to accept their situation and make a living. Most importantly, they had to understand and love their children, while also loving and taking care of themselves.
“Having a child with disabilities feels like you’re alone in the world,” said Lee. “People say things to try to comfort you or support you, but it doesn’t touch your heart. Even another parent of a child with disabilities has different worries or is in a different situation. When I couldn’t stand feeling like that, I stood in front of the mirror and told myself, ‘It’s ok Eun-ja, it’s ok. You’re ok.’ No-one else told me that I would be ok. I was the only person who knew exactly what I was going through so I would just spend hours in front of the mirror like that.
“I had to convince myself, ‘What’s wrong with having disabilities?’ until I could believe it. Before, I always used to think if I took my own life, should I take my child with me so the rest of the family would be liberated. I honestly thought that was the only answer. But I tried so hard to stay positive and now, I see that Ji-hyeon is just as adorable as any child with her uniqueness. She may have a bad temper, but that’s just her. She doesn’t lack anything.”
“Looking after myself was out of the question,” said Kim. “I’ve become better at this now that I'm older, but I just didn’t have the energy or power to think about things like the future. I began a rights movement [for children with disabilities] quite early on from when my child couldn’t attend any kindergartens or daycares, but even doing so, I didn’t know how to raise my boy. So if I meet any parent in a similar situation, I tell them it’s crucial they get trained fast and that they don’t do it alone. We share information on where to go for help and what to ask for. I lived in a difficult world and all I can do is make sure it’s less difficult for others.”
Sadly for these mothers, getting access to appropriate education for their children is just the beginning. Job opportunities are scarce and even if they managed to find employment, they still require guardianship and must figure out the plans for later in their lives. Both Lee and Kim Nam-yeon emphasized that they are determined not to burden their other children with the responsibility of taking care of their sibling with disabilities, which is why they are pushing for better training and employment.
“Every mother of a child with disabilities wishes that our children will die before us, which will be terrible, but better than leaving them,” said Lee. “But this isn’t how the world is supposed to be. We shouldn’t live in a world where we wish our children would die before us or worry about how they are going to survive without us. We wish that people with disabilities will be able to live among those without disabilities and we hope that this film helps the world move toward that direction.”
BY YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]