From March 17-20, the Korean American Film Festival in New York hosted a retrospective of Korean documentarian Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, whose body of work focuses on various political and social issues including the minority conflicts surrounding the 1992 LA riots and the “comfort women” that Japanese World War 2 soldiers took and forced into sexual servitude. She’s not a household name by any account, but she makes that rare, amazing kind of documentary that refuses to boil everything down to good guys vs. bad guys, often portraying situations in the most realistic and complex way possible. Those interested can visit her website for more information on obtaining her movies.
We were lucky enough to sit down with the director and talk to her about her start in movies, her relationship with “Killer of Sheep” helmer Charles Burnett (who shot many of her movies), the current popularity of Korean films, and what she’s up to next.
How did you start in filmmaking?
I never had formal training in filmmaking. I got a PHD in religion and philosophy, I taught college for many years and was a bureaucrat, I worked at the New York State Council of the Arts but eventually I quit to see if I could create something instead of doing somebody else’s errands. There was a research program called “Changing Relations” and I was invited to these documentary projects as a coordinator, but I rejected their offer and I said I’d do it if I was completely in charge — and they made me executive producer.
From there you hired Charles Burnett?
Because of the topic, I wanted a really great African American filmmaker for this project and I called up Charles. He agreed to work on this with me as a director and he would shoot them. I guess I was his boss, because I was the producer and I hired him, but he was my filmmaking mentor. Working with him was better than any formal training.
How did you come to choose your subjects?
I picked issues and people related to Koreans because I knew that, with all due respect, I could make those things better than any mainstream or other documentarians. There are many trying to make “comfort women” films, but I don’t think they know what these women went through in their bones, their heads and their heart. I was 7 when Korea became independent from Japan, had I been 5 years older I could’ve been one of those women. I can feel it. That’s how I tell it.
As for “Sai-I-Gu“/”Wet Sand,” when the LA riots happened, the mainstream took it and promoted it as caused by Black/Korean conflicts. Give me a break. They had conflicts, yes, but if there was one it was a symptom not a cause. The LA riots’ cause is a long historical one that goes back between blacks and mainstream America. That compelled me, to go tell the story right. These kinds of social issues and neglected people, I picked them up and thought I could do it better.
With “Sai-I-Gu” your focus was very direct and specific, only interviewing the Korean women involved. Why did you take this approach?
I went and had no money to do it, and I wanted to make it as fast as I could and counter all of the wrong reporting. I knew that the film had to be focused and that I couldn’t go all over. I decided to focus on the Koreans because they suffered 80% of the damage. Another thing was that mainstream media interviewed Koreans who were second and third generations that could speak English very well, but not the first generation. No one wanted to deal with their inability to speak their language. I also wanted to further focus and deal with women because, as an Asian American woman, I know how strong I was as a single woman with $25 coming to this country. I was no weakling, but the image of Asian Americans was always of a weak woman walking 8 paces behind the men. That was bullshit. I wanted to change that.
You were criticized a bit because the interviewees make some racist remarks at times.
I didn’t want to pamper it and I wanted to present it as it was, those were the facts. They don’t speak for anyone else, they speak for themselves. I was attacked from all sides because of this, from blacks and from Koreans that didn’t like that I showed the racist aspect of Korean people. But that was the truth at that time.
From “Sai-I-Gu” to “Wet Sand,” it seems the situation in LA has not improved. We can only imagine it’s worse now. Do you think history will repeat itself, that there will be another riot?
I hope to God that another riot will not happen. But if it does, and if the riot moves to Beverly Hills instead of between different poor minorities, I’ll be glad. In the original one, minorities were pitted against one another by the mainstream. I hope, if it happens, that it goes to the real source of these things.
Have you noticed the recent surge in the popularity of Korean films?
I’ve watched some Korean dramas, I think they’re really doing well. It’s not just at festivals and theaters, some of them are very brilliant. I’m very proud. It’s a fantastic phenomenon happening in Korea. They are very artistically inclined, they’re very deep in their understanding. But documentary filmmaking, in comparison, still has ways to go. When I was visiting with a group of Korean filmmakers, I asked why they’re so brilliantly ahead in dramas, and one of them simply said that dramas make money and documentaries don’t.
What do you have cooking next?
I started thinking about making a film about North Korea. I was born there and left my hometown when I was seven and have never been back home. All these films made by people about North Korea are the same, they all have the same assumptions that North Korea is one of the axis of evils, that all the citizens are puppets, they must obey and all that. I want to make a film showing that there are human beings like you and me that live there. Also it’ll be like a personal pilgrimage going back.
Will you be allowed entrance?
No, I was denied entrance. Which is interesting on some level … that the idea of the place you were born being your “home” is dismantled because you can no longer go back there. I’m hoping I can do it, the only reason I might not do it is because I don’t want to be conspicuous. But I might make the film here because I was denied to go to my hometown. I’m allowed to go to Pyongyang but everyone goes there. So I focus on the concept of “permission denied” as my film’s subject, and tell the story on why how I cannot go back home. I can shoot around the borders of South Korea and China and see my home town. I’ll interview people and they’ll tell their stories.