Activism and Post-Activism: Korean Documentary Cinema: 1981-2022, A lecture by Prof. Kim Jihoon

Sanggyedong Olympics | 상계동 올림픽
Directed by Kim Dong-won, 27 min | 1988 | Korea | colour
This film, which local historiography of Korean documentary cinema has regarded as the “prototype of video activism”, documents the struggles of tenants against eviction due to the large-scale demolition and beautification of dilapidated houses in the old towns of Seoul in preparation for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Kim Dong-Won’s use of the video camera as a tool to film the tenants while living among them for five years fulfilled activism’s demand for a newsreel that would make public their precarious lives neglected by mainstream news outlets. The film’s collaborative processes satisfied the participatory ideal of the committed documentary to transcend the boundaries between a filmmaker and the subjects, between film and social reality, and between production and reception. (Kim Jihoon)
Graeae: A Stationed Idea | 그라이아이: 주둔하는 신
Directed by Jeong Yeo-reum, 35 min | 2020 | Korea | colour and b&w
The film charts a young female artist-filmmaker’s creative reinvention of the essayistic inquiry into the Cold war and postcolonial origins of Yongsan Garrison in Seoul (the former headquarters of the US military forces stationed in Korea). This is done through a rich array of images and documents, and through her subjectivity that shuffles between a quasi-historian, a collector, and a player of Pokémon Go. Reflecting the condition in which our consciousness of space and time, as well as our memory, are fundamentally restructured by dense digital networks, platforms and interfaces, Jeong Yeo-reum offers a contemporary take on how Korean documentary cinema has dynamically expanded its technical and aesthetic boundaries since the early 21st century while also renewing its longstanding commitment to reality and history. (Kim Jihoon)
“This lecture presents an overview of Activism and Post-Activism: Korean Documentary Cinema: 1981-2022 (Oxford University Press, 2024), the first-ever English-language monograph on Korean non-fiction film and video practices in the non-governmental and non-corporate sectors from their foundational period (early 1980s) to the present. Making tripartite connections between the socio-political history of Korea (from the 1980s mass anti-dictatorship movement to twenty-first century labour issues, Truth and Reconciliation, feminism, LGBT rights, environmental justice, and key events such as the Sewol Ferry disaster and the Candlelight Protests), documentary’s aesthetics and politics, and the shifting institutional and technological evolution of documentary production and distribution, I argue that what is unique and particular about this forty-year history of Korean documentary cinema is the intensive and compressed co-evolution of activism (including social change documentaries aimed at engaging social movements in the form of alternative nonfiction media practice) and post-activism (a set of twenty-first-century documentaries whose formal and aesthetic experimentations gesture toward overcoming and renewing the activist tradition).” Kim Jihoon

The lecture will be followed by screenings of Sanggyedong Olympics (dir. Kim Dong-won, 1988) and Graeae: A Stationed Idea (dir. Jeong Yeo-reum, 2020). Selected by Kim Jihoon, the films exemplify the themes of activism and post-activism in Korean documentary cinema.

Kim Ji-hoon is a Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at Chung-ang University. His second book, Documentary’s Expanded Fields: New Media and the Twenty-First-Century Documentary, was published by Oxford University Press in 2022. He has edited a special issue on Korean popular cinema and television in the 21st century for the Journal of Popular Film and Television (Volume 47, Issue 1, 2019).