In 2017 our documentary strand focused on Pinks, a feminist collective whose films combine filmmaking with activism, in dealing with both LGBTQ issues and workers’ rights. In 2018 we shed light on independent documentary filmmaking from the late 1980s, mainly through the work of P.U.R.N. Productions founded in 1991 by filmmaker Kim Dong Won. Last year we highlighted two key film cooperatives - Seoul Film Collective and Jangsangotmae - and explored the culture of community filmmaking and documentary aesthetics which emerged during the 80s. Thanks to our guest film critic You Un-seong, we were able to learn about different film groups and university cine-clubs which developed during the politically tumultuous decade, and laid the groundwork for independent cinema culture in South Korea. One of the key discussion points, however, was the apparent lack of female filmmakers in these groups and the absence of feminist discourse amongst these radical film communities.
So far in our documentary strand, all of the early radical activist documentary films we have shown were made by male directors. Whilst we deeply appreciated and celebrated the revolutionary spirit of Jangsangotmae and their seminal work Night Before the Strike (1990), we must accept that their vision of radicality was largely informed by their male perspective. The continued presence of misogyny within progressive social movements was highlighted by Kangyu Garam’s sharp documentary Candle Wave Feminists (2017, shown at LKFF in the same year), which critiqued the subjugation of feminist perspectives within the recent citizen’s movement for democracy. This year’s documentary strand attempts to redress the balance somewhat by presenting three works by important feminist film collectives.
Our first screening presents Even Little Grass Has Its Own Name (1990) and My Own Breathing (1999), two films which helped to establish Byun Young-joo as a key independent filmmaker. Even Little Grass was the first work by Bariteo, a collective which formed in 1989, taking its name from the combination of bari (the name of a mythical heroine who is known for her kindness, bravery and determination) and teo (meaning place). Eminent film critic Kim Soyoung and the aforementioned Byun Young-joo were amongst the twenty founding members who initially rented a small office space near Ewha Womans University to hold their meetings. Struggling against a hostile and macho film culture, Bariteo found their collective voice when Womenlink (a feminist activist organisation founded in 1987) commissioned them to make an educational film about the daily struggles of female office workers. The resulting film - circulated on university campuses and community festivals - didn’t receive much public attention, especially in comparison to The Night Before the Strike. The film was criticised for the feminist nature of its subject matter, which was considered peripheral, even trivial, within the the workers’ movement; also the fact it featured white-collar workers was seen as too bourgeois by leftist groups. However, the strength and importance of this work lies not only in its historical context and novel theme, but also in its experimentation with the form - utilising extreme closeups, montage editing and juxtaposing images and music.
After Bariteo disbanded in 1992, Byun Young-joo continued to work on documentary films, directing Live in Asia As a Woman the following year. Dissatisfied with both the process and outcome of this work, Byun contacted distinguished Japanese documentary filmmaker Ogawa Shinsuke to discuss the ethics and methods of documentary filmmaking. Byun later wrote that the key lesson Ogawa taught her was the value of forming genuine relationships with the people with whom you are making the film, and she soon began work on the the Murmuring series (1995-1999), spending time with the survivors of enforced sexual slavery during WWII. My Own Breathing is the final part of the Murmuring Trilogy (1995-1999). Whereas the first two episodes focus on the survivors’ campaign for justice and the struggles of their daily lives, this third part delves into the past further; the survivors take control of the narrative by interviewing each other whilst the filmmaker acts as a keen observer to record their conversations. Perhaps through this final part, Byun came closest to achieving what she and Ogawa considered to be the ultimate purpose of documentary filmmaking.
Let’s Play, Youngheeya Nolja is a feminist culture collective founded in 2008 to offer alternative perspectives on the world through film. This year we are presenting Itaewon (made in 2016, but only released in December last year), directed by one of their founding members and LKFF regular Kangyu Garam. For Itaewon Kangyu picked up her camera to record the untold stories of three women - Samsook, Naki and Younghwa - whose lives are deeply intertwined with the changing district of Itaewon - former home of the US army base in central Seoul. Samsook, Naki, Younghwa and their neighbourhood are powerful witnesses to the recent socio-political history of South Korea, and the film scrutinises how society’s perception of these people and their place has changed over time. Filmed from an intimate, neighbourly point of view (Let’s Play Young-hee’s office is also based in Itaewon), their perspectives are captured with strength and honesty.
Stylistically disparate, our programme showcases how feminist film collectives have worked towards an alternative perspective and radical ethics in documentary filmmaking. All of these films demonstrate different ways to engage with their subjects and their versions of reality, and in doing so, ensure that a feminist approach has become a central tenet of activist and independent filmmaking practice in Korea.
Hyun Jin Cho (Film Programmer, London Film Festival & London Korean Film Festival)