For those at the intersection of art and politics, this moment of uprising—from Tahrir Square to Madison—begs response. I was thinking about the role of the artist when a small poem began making its global rounds. Tamim al-Barghouti’s “O Egypt, It’s Close” told the beautiful lie that “A tyrant only exists in the imagination of his subjects.” But in the preceding line, the speaker demands a reality-check: “just come to the square and see.”
To depict reality and invite transcendence is no easy task, which is why good documentaries are, in my view, hard to come by. We were lucky, then, to see all of Dai Sil Kim-Gibson’s films in New York earlier this year, reminders of how world-historical moments can be refracted through subtle, personal stories.
Kim-Gibson’s oeuvre was the subject of a much-needed retrospective at the Korean American Film Festival, March 17 to 20 in Manhattan. The festival screened six of her movies: two on the L.A. Riots, Sa-I-Gu (1993) and Wet Sand: Voices from LA (2004); two on neglected victims of World War II, A Forgotten People: The Sakhalin Koreans (1995) and Silence Broken: the Korean Comfort Women (1999); a narrative short directed by Charles Burnett, Olivia’s Story (1999); and Kim-Gibson’s newest feature, Motherland: Cuba, Korea, USA (2006). Her earliest film, America Becoming (1991), on U.S. immigration and race relations, screened at the Museum of Modern Art in April, when Burnett (Killer of Sheep (1977)), her longtime collaborator, will enjoy his own, equally necessary retrospective.
While Kim-Gibson identifies herself as an activist documentarian, she finds Michael Moore anathema to the genre. Her preference is to allow subjects to speak for themselves and relate, on their own terms, the ambiguities of traumatic experience. Indeed, I come away from her films asking questions, remembering individual names and stories. Her camerawork is careful but honest, the music scores natural and unobtrusive. And always the land is present: whether the foggy hills of Sakhalin or razed blocks of Los Angeles, we grapple with the topography of home.
How did you feel about the KAFFNY retrospective of your work?
I have mixed feelings about it. All this commotion around me makes me feel uncomfortable. I’m used to asking the questions and presenting people’s stories; I don’t like being the subject, which is why you rarely hear my voice or see me in my films. While it is important that we trace our roots, the fact that we still need a “Korean-American film festival” as a political statement makes me sad. I dream about an American society in which a festival like this is primarily a positive expression and search, not a need.
It’s interesting you say that since many of your films portray Korean diasporic subjects. As a Korean immigrant, do you feel a particular responsibility to bring these out, or is it due to linguistic access or something else?
I could make non-Korean films—and you know, if [my husband] Don had not died and if I had more energy, I might have done that—but the reason I went after some of those Korean issues is because they were really pressing, and I honestly thought I needed to make them because I was right there, perhaps better qualified than many others. I understood the issues, people, and history not only in my head but in my bones and blood. And in the end, Korean issues are human issues, so it doesn’t matter. I’m going after neglected human issues.
This confirms what you’ve said in previous interviews—that you feel chosen by your subjects rather than choosing them. Why do these traumatic stories “choose” you?
I’m a child of the Korean War. It left a really big impression on me because it took place in 1950, when I was 12. Our house was bombed in July 1950, and I thought my brother was going to die from a shrapnel wound. As a little girl, I walked over dead bodies to look for a doctor for my brother, and I was then a very good Sunday school girl, so when I saw that massive evil and my own friends dead, I thought, ‘how could an omnipotent, omniscient god let this happen?’ This became my obsession, and no one gave me answers that I could live with, so this led me to study religion. But after I got my PhD and after umpteen years, I decided it was best to drop that question, but I kept after vital social issues having to do with poor people, oppressed people. Filmmaking allowed me to combine my deep concerns and my interest in art. Also, all that training to get a PhD equipped me with conceptual tools to make good documentaries. People who think they can make documentaries without research and conceptual tools are full of shit.
Why are documentaries the right form for you, and what do you think the role of documentaries is today?
Film in general fits me because, as a director, producer, and writer, you have to know what you want, but film is a collaborative effort—you work with people, and I love learning from others. People ask me, “how do you make films when you’ve never been formally trained?” and I say, “by asking questions and exploiting other people’s talents.” Documentary’s primary role is to show viewers, as theologian Paul Tillich would say, “reality as it is” and “reality as it should be.” Documentaries should leave something that would stay in the hearts of viewers long after leaving the theater, auditorium, community room, etc.
I first learned about your work through the “comfort women” film Silence Broken, but I think A Forgotten People: The Sakhalin Koreans may be your most successful, that is, beautiful, film.
Yes, from a filmic point of view, it is. Of all my films, the two you mention have the most powerful, wrenching effect on me. These film subjects are my sisters, brothers, and possibly parents. The suffering they endured—being born in Korea and ultimately being human beings subject to the tragic destiny of their motherland and human greed, especially of powerful oppressors—chokes me with sorrow. These films are also historically and conceptually related, although very different, as they have the overlapping element of forced labour by Japan.
How do you choose your sound and music? I’m particularly interested in the traditional Korean music you use.
If you are a Korean-born filmmaker who has lived as long as I have, you know Koreans have a deep sense of accumulated sorrow and resentment, which comes from history, much of the time not of their own making, but of those who are powerful and greedy. The Korean music I use is by Hwang Byung Ki, one of the foremost contemporary musicians of our time, a lawyer turned musician. His music has all these elements, and he was kind enough to let me use it, for example in A Forgotten People. Other original music I use in Wet Sand comes from an African-American composer, Stephen Taylor, who composes all of Charles Burnett’s film music. He knows human suffering, and his music fits right into these tragic stories of human conflict. Sound in film should be as natural as the sound of crying when you are sad. But silence in sound is often more powerful than what is spoken.
The stories you tell are not ones the average Korean would volunteer. They are stories people would be happy to keep in the closet. Your work seems to militate against shame and historical amnesia.
I have the perfect example to illustrate your point. When I first came out with the “comfort women” film, I thought people of my generation would be so supportive of it, but they walked out. They said, “Why bring up this shameful thing?” The real support I got for the “comfort women” film and book [also Silence Broken] was from second- and third-generation Korean Americans, and that gave me hope.
Can you discuss the genesis of your most recent film, Motherland, about an elderly Korean woman in Cuba? I’d read that you went to Cuba because you were discouraged about the state of affairs in America.
During the two Bush presidencies, I almost wanted to move out of this country. I went to Cuba to test out my feelings about American imperialism. When I was going through customs, the official asked me, “why are you here?” and I said, “to get away from George W. Bush.” He laughed his head off and waved me through. I went to Cuba primarily to see the island, to see how it functions as a socialist country, because no matter what people say, it’s admirable that such a small country stood against its imperialistic neighbour all those years. But when I met Martha, the subject of the film, and other Koreans in Cuba who looked like revolutionary soldiers, I abandoned my plan to sit in the sun. I hired Cuban cameraman and soundmen. I shot less than five days and intended to go back for more. The footage I had was not nearly enough, but I felt compelled to cut it to make the film Motherland: Cuba, Korea, USA. Obama’s presidential campaign took both my husband and me from that deep hole of despair about America. We were so excited about Obama’s election, but sadly, Don died three days before the inauguration. Now, I don’t know how Don would respond, because I’m actually disappointed in Obama. He’s more worried about his second term than doing anything right now, leaning toward a centrist position in the name of bipartisanship, but what we need is a historical president to stand firmly and say, “okay, I’ll do it, and you fuck off.”
Maybe I’m not disappointed because I don’t expect much from mainstream politicians. But doesn’t it mean something to have a Black man be the face of America to the world? And how do you see American race relations today, almost 20 years beyond the L.A. Riots—10 years after your second film on that tragedy?
I thought Obama’s views about racism before the election were naïve. As someone who made a film right after the L.A. Riots [Sa-I-Gu] and then another 10 years later [Wet Sand], I thought, ‘I cannot go with this man,’ and I’m proving to be right. The fact that Obama is a Black face—I mean, Democrats can rejoice in it because it shows the progress America has made—but he could’ve made this presidency so much more historic. And racism has not gone away. In some ways, it got worse in that it’s now underground. It’s a racism that gets inside of you, underground, repressed, and expressed in different forms. My two L.A. Riots films and also Olivia’s Story all deal with race. I made the first one, Sa-I-Gu, because I was mad at mainstream representations of the riots and the idea that it was caused by Black-Korean conflict, which are a symptom, not a cause.
That’s why I was excited for the festival’s “L.A. Riots 19 Years Later” discussion with you and African-American writer-director Charles Burnett.
I heard that you’re considering a North Korea documentary for your next project.
All the North Korean films out there used to say that North Korea is crazy, the axis of evil, and all the citizens are puppets who do not have minds of their own. And then lately there are different kinds of movies made about defectors, who feel very strongly about the government, since they ran away. But surely the citizens must be human beings, is my assumption. I managed through a friend to have lunch with the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, and I asked him to give me permission to go to my hometown in North Korea. About two months later, a message came back that said “permission denied.” I started thinking of “permission denied” as a concept; it could easily become the title. What I want to do is go to the DMZ, Kangwon Province, where I can stand and look at North Korea and say “permission to go back home was denied.” And then go to the Chinese border and look at North Korea and say, “here I’m looking at the capital, below that would be my hometown, but permission denied.” The film is not designed to attack North Korea, but as a concept, as a phenomenon, why did this sad thing happen on the peninsula such that permission is denied? In terms of visual treatment, it will be like what I do in all my films: lots of archival footage and hopefully pictures of my hometown. During the Korean War, as a 12-year-old, I actually thought that Americans were angels sent by god to save us, and it was the hardest thing to deal with later on: how wrong I was and how messed up America was in dealing with 1945 and the Korean War. I’ve come to understand that even worse things are being repeated in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. If [the U.S.] had paid any attention to the Korean people and what the Korean people needed and wanted—it’s a big historical “if”—then I have a conviction that Korea would not have been divided. If they could tolerate Korea turning into a unique form of socialism, it would’ve been a unified country. So that’s part of what I want to tell in this North Korea film. I have a developing view about the 21st century. It is a century of mass migration in which no superpower and no nationalism should exist. One’s birthplace as home is now dismantled [as a concept]. Human beings were nomads, their address in their hearts, not in any specific place. Ideally, we would go back to that.