Director Kim Do-joon poses before an interview with The Korea Herald on June 26. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
The sound of rousing protest songs, impassioned speeches and slogans chanted in unison flooded my apartment complex, disturbing the tranquility of a warm, lazy morning on a Saturday morning in August.
I strained to hear what was being said, but the words bounced off the building walls, becoming incomprehensible echoes by the time they reached my ears through the open window.
When the shrill noise reverberated through the apartment buildings again the next Saturday, I left the book I was trying to read and headed to the entrance of the apartment complex on the pretext of getting something from the nearby convenience store. I was sure I would see the protesters on the way. I was curious who they were, what grievance had brought them to this run-of-the-mill apartment complex. In my more than 20 years in the neighborhood, something like this had never occurred before.
On the way back home, I saw a small group of people wearing labor union vests, one of them speaking into a microphone, which magnified the sound manifold. They were protesting against the firing of highway toll collectors. While picking through ice cream bars at the convenience store, I very briefly debated whether I should try to interview them. But it ended at that -- an internal debate. After all it was my day off, the heat of the midday sun was unbearable and I thus justified my decision to not pursue the matter.
Kim Do-joon, a 33-year-old student at Korea National University of Arts, was in Gwanghwamun in downtown Seoul one day last August, doing groundwork for a film project when he happened upon a group of protesters. Unlike me, Kim, who had his camera with him, went over and immediately began interviewing the protestors, effectively starting work on a new film.
Kim’s documentary feature “Bora Bora,” which was screened online in early June as part of the Jeonju International Film Festival, answered the questions I did not ask that Saturday morning last August.
In an interview prompted partly by a sense of guilt at having ignored the protests and motivated by a desire to make it right, I ask Kim what led him to drop what he was doing and run over to the protesters.
“These were women who were my aunt’s, my mother’s age protesting under the blazing sun,” Kim says. The sight debunked for Kim, who had had no previous experience with labor movements and whose knowledge about such movements came from reading, the stereotypical image of protesters as strong, robust men.
“Bora Bora” -- the Korean term for “Look Look” also refers to the name of a workers’ dance team featured in the film, as well as the desire for a single unified labor union at the company -- is an insiders’ look into the protests that were sparked by the firing in July 2019 of 1,500 non-regular workers who had demanded regular worker status as employees of Korea Expressway Corp.
The documentary film follows the protesters as they talk about the families they have not seen in months, as they debate the next course of action and as a protester has her hair done by a fellow protester. Emotions are not withheld and the camera does not shy away from conflicts among different groups.
Such an intimate look was possible because of the footage taken inside the protest venues by protesters themselves during the more than 200 days of rallies calling for the reinstatement of fired workers as regular employees of KEC.
Kim Mi-young and Kim Seung-hwa, who are named as directors along with Kim Do-joon, shot the footage from inside the protester-occupied KEC headquarters in Gimcheon, North Gyeongsang Province, and from atop the Seoul Tollgate canopy, respectively.
When Kim began filming, the protests had been going on for three weeks. Unable to get inside the Korea Expressway Corp. headquarters building occupied by the unionists and cordoned off by police, Kim had to contend with interviewing people protesting outside the building. In the process, he learned the women protesting 10 meters above ground on the Seoul Toll Gate canopy were sent up food twice a day via a pulley system.
Kim, who had decided against the use of a drone to shoot the group on the canopy as it would have meant a mere glance at a protest scene, sent up a video camera to the protesters, hiding it in the pulley delivering food.
“My interest was in what the unionists were talking about. I did not want a television interview. I was curious about the story that unfolded once the camera was put down, the story that took place behind the camera,” Kim says.
Getting a camera to the protesters occupying the headquarters building since Sept. 9 proved more challenging, and Kim had to bide his time until the police watch relaxed somewhat. Kim hid a video camera and other accessories inside boxes of tonic drinks and made a dash for a gap in the police barricade. He was stopped by police but, fortunately, only two of the six boxes Kim was carrying were inspected. The two boxes contained bottles of Ssanghwa-tang, the four unopened boxes held a camera and other filming paraphernalia.
Once the cameras were inside, Kim asked the protesters to shoot. “I asked them to treat it like a toy, to play with it and to film every day as if keeping a diary,” Kim says.
By the time the protests ended in late January, Kim had some 1,000 hours of footage in his hands. He was surprised at how good the footage taken by the protesters was. “They were not conscious of the camera,” says Kim. While media and documentaries typically portray protesters as suffering -- as people in need of help -- what he saw in the footage taken from inside was anything but.
“What was really surprising was how bright, cheerful, strong, dignified, confident they were,” Kim says. “I was shocked and moved.”
Editing was a Herculean task -- it would have taken two months just to watch the 1,000 hours of footage and about one to two years to edit -- but circumstances demanded it be done as soon as possible. “The situation had resolved by the end of January and I thought the film needed to be quickly sent out to the world,” Kim says.
Working at a speed that most people would find incredulous, editing was completed in one month. The final film is 2 1/2 hours long -- 50 minutes of footage by the unionists and 100 minutes shot by director Kim and the film’s director of photography. What the audience sees is 1/400th of what was filmed, he explains.
It helped that he had continued to view the footage by the unionists as it came in so that he could give feedback and also so that what he filmed outside would meld seamlessly with what was filmed inside.
“Bora Bora” took form as it was being shot. “The film had to reflect the changes in my thoughts because my thoughts changed too, living with the unionists for half a year,” says Kim.
Early on, Kim had decided that for the footage shot by the unionists and his own -- as an outsider -- to merge harmoniously, a close relationship with the unionists was a must.
It seemed a daunting task at first, but relentlessly tailing the unionists and spending time together, the distance between them gradually faded. In a follow-up email, I ask how the feeling as if he were part of the community he was filming may have influenced his work. “I moved in a position that was somewhere between being a member of the community and an outsider,” Kim replies. “But the principle of staying side by side with them, not observing them from above, remained consistent.”
Laid-off toll collectors perform synchronized dance movements as they protest on top of Seoul Tollgate in a scene from documentary film “Bora Bora.” (Kim Do-joon)
Noting that directors today tend to rely on the image of workers inside their own heads, Kim says they are squeezing workers and minorities into a frame of a victim narrative, competing to show who is the bigger victim in an increasingly sensational manner. “It must be asked if this is right,” says the so-far mild-mannered Kim, raising his voice in anger and frustration.
While collaboration with the unionists began as a way to overcome the limits of not being able to get inside the protest sites, as filming progressed Kim saw that it could be a breakthrough for the current state of indie film.
“I pursued collaboration with the workers as I thought that through such collaboration perhaps the workers’ real thoughts, faces, history may be shown,” he says, adding that he believes that “Bora Bora” may present an alternative in Korea’s indie film scene.
The director has a lot to say about independent cinema in Korea, including how indie films are increasingly becoming more like public interest commercials or sentimental human drama.
“In these films you only see pain, but as ‘Bora Bora’ shows, there is also joy, festivity and conflict,” Kim says. “I wanted to show what is authentic.”
In making “Bora Bora,” Kim followed his conviction that authenticity would have a far greater persuasive power to change the minds of those hostile to the toll gate protests and the issue of non-regular workers than eliciting viewers’ sympathy to appeal to “low-level” humanism.
Kim’s desire for authenticity is apparent in his cinematography as well. Rather than close-ups of individual faces against a blurred background, which effectively eliminates the context of the emotion, Kim’s camera pans the scene, looking at the individuals as well as the surroundings in depth.
Have the unionists been able to watch the film together, I ask, since an important part of a film experience is shared viewing and the discussions that follow.
COVID-19 made that impossible, but the unionists who watched the film online expressed wonder at how the film was shot from their perspective, Kim explains. “They didn’t think it would come to this. They said they hadn’t imagined that it could be made into a movie and be seen by many people,” says Kim.
Kim admits that without background knowledge about the tollgate workers’ protests, the film may be strange and unfamiliar initially. I agree but add that the film also has a way of pulling you in and you soon become oblivious to its length. “I would like the audience to think of it as their problem as well. After all, there is no one that does not engage in labor,” Kim replies.
Kim has four films to his name: three shorts and one feature-length documentary.
While “Bora Bora” is Kim’s first documentary feature, his previous short films are also grounded in the realities of the marginalized.
His first work, a 2008 film about the homeless, starred actual homeless men, including one who was also an activist. “Juliana,” a story of an elderly woman living like a ghost in a condemned apartment building and a man his 40s with nowhere to go, evolved from Kim’s interviews with three elderly women tenants facing eviction from Sky Apartment in Jeongneung, Seoul, and the life story of the elderly actress he had cast for the film. After listening to the 80-something actress tell her story, Kim rewrote the script over a two-day period.
Since his teenage years, Kim had always known that he wanted to create. That it would be in the medium of film that he would create was decided after watching “Deep End,” a 1970 coming-of-age film by Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, as a second-year high school student. “Thinking about it now, it is a wonder that EBS aired it in 2003, albeit with some scenes with nudity deleted,” says Kim.
Unlike so many Hollywood movies, the Polish film’s genre could not be defined and it did not depend on a narrative, Kim recalls many years later. “But, it had a power to keep you watching, entranced,” he says. He would later learn that these were the characteristics of “modern cinema.”
After graduating high school, Kim chose to “attend” cinematheques rather than going to university. “I thought, ‘This is a place I can study film,’” he says. For more than two years, he watched films every day, focusing on classics and art films.
“This was a time when films were all I thought about every single day,” says Kim.
Kim cites “Jeanne Dielman” by Belgian film director Chantal Akerman as his first cinematic experience. “It was as if an electric current went right through me,” he says. In 3 1/2 hours, the feminist director shows a widow living with her son going about her daily routine over a course of three days. The housewife who performs household chores with mechanical precision, much like performance art, is also a prostitute who receives clients daily at her home. After giving the woman’s work around the house the time it takes to complete, the film’s climax comes in the last few minutes. “It made me think differently about time,” he says, adding with a laugh, “If you like this kind of movies, your life gets difficult.”
Watching films, he not only ruminated over aesthetics, he also became interested in politics and history, eventually leading to his joining a civic movement and finding himself at a crossroads: film or civic activism. Thinking it would be unfair to give up on filmmaking without ever having actually made one, he enrolled at a filmmaking academy, and by the time he graduated six months later he had his first short film about homelessness.
Moviemaking came to an end as he joined the military at the end of that year. It was upon starting university a few years after his discharge from the military that he began making films again, although, initially his reason for going to a university had nothing to do with film.
I wonder if “Bora Bora” a film a distributor is likely to pick up.
The director has been asked if it could be shortened, so he knows that there is an interest. On top of the sheer length of the film, distributors also express reservations about the use of amateurism, according to Kim. Indie films dealing with serious topics have a slim chance of theatrical release, usually passed over in favor of romance stories that pander to those in their 20s, who make up the majority of the indie film market.
In a later email response, Kim, who is currently reediting “Bora Bora,” is adamant that he would not reedit solely for the purpose of shortening it at the request of a distributor. If the typical screening avenues are closed to the film, Kim will seek alternative ways.
“A copy could be sent to a school, workplace or other communities where they could be shown on their screening system,” Kim says, citing a recent inquiry about screening from a labor union of non-regular workers at Korea National University of Arts.
He also sees crowdfunding as a possible way to fund theater screenings. “If the problem of distribution could be solved this way, the film would have set a significant precedent in the history of Korean indie films,” Kim says.
When the film is more widely screened, Kim believes it will be evaluated not only on its story but also on the way it was made by the collaborative efforts of workers and students. “This has significance as an attempt by the workers to record their history by themselves without relying on the intellectuals. It also shows that the arts can be a means for the workers to educate themselves, and in this context, it is related to the question of the artists’ role,” he says.
“Bora Bora” has been submitted to several local and international film festivals, including the Vancouver International Film Festival and DOK Leipzig, with plans to send submissions to International Film Festival Rotterdam, Sunday Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival, among others.
Kim’s next film is a mix of documentary, drama and essay on post-1987 Korean history that he plans to finish in the first half of 2021. “No one really talks about the ’87 regime,” he says, referring to Korea’s democratization in 1987. “I think movies could be an outlet for those stories,” he says.
Kim, who regretted not being able to share “Bora Bora” with an audience in a theater setting and receive critical reviews, will get his day in the sun soon.
“Bora Bora” is among a selection of films that JIFF will be screening in theaters in Jeonju from July 21 to Sept. 20 and in Seoul for three weeks starting Aug. 6 as part of its extended festival. Screenings will be followed by artist talks and discussions.
What would he like to make if he could make any movie? “A movie that requires a lot of money!” he says with a big laugh.
Turning serious, he says, “I would like to make many films. … I’ve found that I have a lot of stories I want to tell.”
By Kim Hoo-ran (firstname.lastname@example.org