▲ Max Jones, director of a documentary, 'Seoul Systers'
When the cell phone rings the first time, Max Jones ignores it. It’s the middle of an interview, and in any case the phone is not to hand. But the second time, he takes it. Perhaps surprisingly, given that this is the phone of a North American teenager, President Lee Myung Bak’s secretary is on the other end of the line.
“Great news,” Max announces at the culmination of the call. “We are having breakfast together tomorrow morning to organize an interview with President Lee.”
Max may be young, just 14, but he also obviously knows how to get access to high places. It is all down to perseverance, his mother assures me. And now this young man, born in Florida but a resident of Toronto, is bringing his seemingly unlimited reserves of enthusiasm for journalism to bear on the multi-faceted problem of North Korea. This he is doing in the shape of a documentary film, ‘Seoul Sisters’, which he hopes to release later this year; it is slowly taking shape now after a month-long round of interviews in China and here in Seoul. Max is really here to talk to The Daily NK’s president, but The Daily NK wants a chance to talk to him, too.
‘Seoul Sisters’, Max tells me, is a film about defectors and the problems they face, and it is a film about problems on the Korean Peninsula, and it is also a film which looks inside North Korea. It is a lot to fit into an hour, that’s for sure.
“There were a lot of things I wasn’t going to be able to tell on paper and I wanted to tell them through various different mediums so I found that the most viable solution was actually doing a documentary film,” Max says, explaining why he didn’t take a slightly easier way out; a newspaper article, for example.
“If you walk up to anyone my age here in Korea or in Canada and ask them what a refugee is, half of them will say they don’t know,” he continues. “They are really unaware of what is happening here, and uninformed about the whole entire crisis.”
Therefore, through his documentary, Max hopes “people will learn more about the crisis and be more interested in it.”
After all, he adds, “Nobody my age is interested in it, and yet they are going to be the people who are making this change.”
Below is the transcript of The Daily NK’s interview with 14-year old journalist and director Max Jones;
- Tell us more about the beginnings of your interest in North Korean issues.
Actually, my nanny was Korean. That was when I was really little; her father was actually from North Korea and he defected right after the Korean War, so I’ve had an interest for quite a while. But the Laura Ling and Euna Lee case sparked a more detailed interest, because I started actually organizing candlelight vigils for them and got involved with knowing the families, helping with their publicity and stuff for the actual trial that was happening in North Korea. So that is what really sparked all of my interest. And with my interest in journalism even before that, I said, “Hey, why don’t I mix the two?” It was a kind of evolution; “Why don’t I go there and then write a column in the Toronto Star?” then “Why don’t I go there and do a whole entire page about it in the Toronto Star?” to “Why don’t I do a documentary on it?”
- Doing a page in the Toronto Star might be somewhat easy, but how did you get to the point of wanting to do a documentary?
I figured out that there were a lot of things I wasn’t going to be able to tell on paper and I wanted to tell them through various different mediums, including paper, so I found that the most viable solution was actually doing a documentary film. And plus I’d gotten a lot of suggestions from people saying, “You should do a documentary on that!”
- Is it an easy thing to do? North Korea is a hard topic to grapple with.
It’s difficult, it really is. But I’m good at interviewing, I like interviewing and I wake up every morning very curious to know what is happening in the world, so it’s not really that; the more challenging parts of it are the safety parts, things like that. The production is not that difficult, it is more about getting the footage that we need and editing it.
- Why ‘Seoul Sisters’?
Seoul is the capital, obviously, but it also refers to North and South as sisters; so many similarities, so many differences. When you refer to the phrase ‘Seoul Sisters’; if you are a western person it means two people who are really similar, yet so different at the same time.
- Who has been your most interesting interviewee?
One person that we met in China; he is actually a worker for a missionary group. He told us of how, ten years ago, he decided that he wanted to help these refugees. He is of Korean decent and said “Wow, I didn’t even know this was happening”; he was failing in business so he wanted to find another career in helping others, not himself. So he and many other people have risked their lives over the last ten years to help these people escape, and half of it has even been on his own dime. So I think he has been the most influential interviewee so far.
We haven’t had a chance to talk to too many people in North America yet, but I’d have to say somebody by the name of Brendan Creamer. He did all these vigils and he was, after Bill Clinton, the most influential in getting Laura and Euna back home to the U.S. I’ve known him for a while, so getting his perspective on what was happening there and how people can help was definitely interesting.
- Did you encounter any problems in China?
I haven’t really had any difficulties with the Chinese government, but we are actually going through China on the way home, so we are a bit nervous about getting caught at customs. It’s funny; when there’s a customs person and they are looking at me and I don’t know what they are looking at on the other side of the computer.
But the only time when I’ve actually feared for my safety was when we were talking to somebody who leads these refugees down to Laos and Thailand, he actually works for a missionary organization that helps people defect from North Korea, and I was talking to him in a hotel room in Shenyang and, you know, he was giving a lot of signs that it wasn’t a safe place to be talking and that he wasn’t comfortable, and that was the only time that I’ve ever felt uncomfortable, but other than that, the Chinese have been pretty… I don’t know… they’ve left us alone.
- What have you discovered from your interviews here in Seoul?
Specifically with the refugees, I’ve found that they have amazing stories. But through contacts I’ve had with other people, they’ve all told me; listen, these refugees they don’t have anybody to trust, so they are very touchy, they don’t trust anybody, at all. Especially journalists. So sometimes they’ve asked for money for interviews; that’s something that I’ve learned, it’s their culture, and they’re still part of North Korean culture, so they have to ask for money for interviews; they’re also quite nervous when we are interviewing them. It’s understandable.
Aside from the refugees, we’ve learned that this crisis has so many aspects to it, it is not just a refugee crisis, it’s not just a nuclear crisis, there are so many parts of it and we really want to bring that out in our film.
- However, where do you think the emphasis lies among all these problems?
The government, Kim Jong Il, the whole Kim clan really; that is where the emphasis lies. It’s really a diverse subject with many different parts, but that is the part that affects every single part of it. We’re interested in the humanitarian and political parts of it at the same time, and one thing we want to focus on is getting the perspective of all the different parts of it. Something that we’ve really learned from our interviews is that it is all about perspective. When we went to the war museum in Dandong, it was completely different from what I had learned back at home, and then going to the war museum here in Seoul there is a pretty different perspective here too. We want to get the perspective of all the governments, so that people watching the film can draw their own conclusions as to who is and is not doing bad things.
- So what do you hope will come out of the documentary?
I hope people will learn more about the crisis and be more interested in it, because if you walk up to anyone my age here in Korea or in Canada and ask them what a refugee is, half of them will say they don’t know. So they are really unaware of what is happening here, and uninformed about the whole entire crisis. I’ve not met one person except those who go to the unification school south of Seoul (Hanawon) who knows anything about the crisis, or anything near what I’ve discovered. It has been interesting to hear that nobody my age is interested in it, and yet they are going to be the people who are making this change; it may be a good thing and a bad thing at the same time, I don’t know. In fact, a lot of the time people don’t even want to know about it.
- How has your view of North Korea changed as a result of your work in the United States, here and in China?
To be able to go on a boat on the Yalu River, to feel what it is like to be that close, get the feeling of loss of freedom, it is amazing to get to feel what that is like, to feel what I have heard for so long just on the internet from people that I’ve interviewed. And when you see something with your own eyes, well that is when you finally realize what is happening.
- So, as a young North American, how do you think the world should deal with North Korea problems going forward?
What was it that refugee I met said when asked what she would say to Kim Jong Il if she had the chance? “I would tell him to take better care of his people” or something similar.
As for me, I would have to say that other governments should get involved and take more action. Not many besides South Korea, the U.S. and Japan are taking action against what is happening in North Korea, for example what we were talking with (The Daily NK’s) president about earlier; when they are giving food to these refugees they don’t have people who go in and examine what is going on there; there are lots of people who need to take action. The UNHCR needs to tell China to go to the border and check out what is happening there, something everyone has been pressuring them to do for so long. So, governments taking action is what I think will help to solve this crisis.
Oh, and North Korea opening the door.
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