|A scene from “Let’s Dance,” a Korean documentary included in the international competition lineup of the ongoing DMZ Korean International Documentary Film Festival. (DMZ Docs)|
GOYANG, Gyeonggi Province ― In 2009, a group of pro-life doctors reported clinics and fellow physicians that performed illegal abortions.
Under Korean law, abortions are illegal except under special circumstances, such as the unborn baby posing a serious health risk to the mother. The practice still remains widespread here, however, especially among young and unmarried women.
The particular event in 2009 inspired filmmaker Jo Se-young to create a film about the issue, featuring women who agreed to speak candidly on camera about their experiences with abortion. In a country where abortion remains taboo, the film offers a rare glimpse into the personal and complex stories behind the very difficult decisions.
The film, “Let’s Dance,” is the only Korean film included in the international competition lineup of the ongoing DMZ Korean International Documentary Film Festival (DMZ Docs) in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province. It had its world premiere on Friday.
“Let’s Dance” is not exactly a pro-choice movie. Filmmaker Jo rather focuses on the complexity of the subject and the hidden elements that make it so intricate: poor sex education in Korea, fear of labor, and one’s career and reputation.
The testimonies are told solely by Jo’s interviewees ― the women who have had an abortion ― and almost no one else. The filmmaker does not interview a single doctor throughout this film, nor does she speak to pro-choice or pro-life activists. This is not a film that debates whether or not a fetus is a human being; it is about the experience of abortion and how it affects a woman’s perception of life and herself.
One of the women in the film is a 30-something filmmaker who is now married and pregnant with her husband’s child.
She created a film based on her own experience getting an abortion when she was a college student. For someone who was only 19, the whole experience was overwhelming. Her ex, the baby’s father, cut off all contact after finding out she was pregnant. Without even telling her parents, she decided to get an abortion on her own and tracked down a clinic that performed the procedure secretly.
“You may never be able to conceive a child after this. You know that, right?” her doctor hysterically told her before she agreed to receive the procedure, as if “talking to a criminal,” she recalls.
“I was really scared,” she says in the movie. “The whole thing was just too much for me to handle.”
One of the women decided to abort her second child because she simply thought she could not do it ― she had been traumatized by the experience of her first birth, and would often get flashbacks of the labor.
“Before getting the procedure, the doctor let me hear the heartbeat of the unborn baby,” she says in the film. “That was totally unexpected. I did not ask for it and they made me listen to it. And I wish I never heard it. I still feel sorry and guilty about the decision.”
For a number of women in the film, the problem had to do with not using birth control. They did not say “no” when their boyfriends told them things like, “no one gets pregnant that easily,” or “I’ll be careful and it will not happen” as their excuse to avoid using condoms. While some did not decline because they were afraid to “kill the mood,” some had not known enough about birth control. For many, it had to do with the sex-education classes back in middle and high schools ― which did not teach them much about contraception at all.
“They showed us a very graphic video of a baby being born and a fetus being aborted,” said one of the interviewees, remembering her sex-education class at school when she was a teenager.
“It was extremely graphic and I could not eat for a few days after. The whole message of that class was that getting an abortion is wrong, it’s a terrible thing to do, and that you should never do it. And by the end of the class, each of us was given this thing called ‘a virginity candy’ and was made to promise (that we will keep our virginity until marriage). ”
Often heartbreaking and emotional, Jo successfully argues that the decision to abort one’s unborn baby is never simple, and sometimes causes lifelong grief and trauma to mothers.
“I agreed to do this interview because I wanted to use my own voice to speak about what happened,” one of the women says in the film. “Although I wrote about it, I never got to talk about it out loud. The whole point is to revisit the event and try to tell my younger self that I love her regardless of what she’s done.”
The ongoing DMZ Docs runs until Oct. 23. The winner of the international competition lineup will be announced during the closing ceremony on the last day of the festival.
By Claire Lee (email@example.com)