Acclaimed Director Pushing Back NKHR Envelope

[imText1]The North Korea Human Rights International Film Festival (NKHRIFF), which opens this afternoon, is attracting domestic attention for its attempt to blend North Korean human rights-and film. Optimists hope that the festival can turn North Korean human rights into a real social issue, using the silver screen to nag at viewer consciences.

Following an earlier interview with the festival’s ambassador, ‘Winter Butterfly’ star Park So Yeon, yesterday Daily NK met acclaimed director Lee Jang Ho, the chair of the film festival committee, hoping that he could shed some more light on the meaning of the festival. Lee is known in South Korea for his direction of a slew of ‘70s and ‘80s box office hits, including Heavenly Homecoming to Stars and Declaration of Idiot.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that he is an energetic fellow. “Directors should be out there making movies until they’re 80 or 90,” he says, adding that for him this means working hereafter to spread the message of North Korean human rights. Lee recalls being inspired to the life of directing by Shin Sang Ok, a prolific South Korean film director who was kidnapped and forced to spend eight years making movie in film-mad Kim Jong Il’s North Korea before escaping. In tribute to his hero, Lee is now the chairman of the Shin Sang Ok Memorial Foundation.

Speaking at his office at the foundation’s headquarter in southern Seoul, Seoul, Lee predicts that an Ishimaru Jiro documentary shot with real footage from inside North Korea, North Korea VJ, is going to be the showpiece of the festival.

Ishimaru obtained the footage and interviews for the piece from two citizen journalists he works closely with inside North Korea, Lee Jun and Kim Dong Cheol.

Of the documentary film, Lee says, “The reality in North Korea is inescapably shocking from the moment you turn the camera on. The scene with the ‘clover girl’ is extremely disconcerting on its own.”

However, he is quick to add, “The other films which were produced by studios are also very meaningful, I think.”

Lee feels so positive about North Korea VJ, he says, because he believes documentaries are potentially more effective than dramas when it comes to maximizing the reach of the message about North Korean human rights.

“The South Korean film industry steered well clear of the real issues in the 1970s during the Park Chung Hee era,” he points out. “Realism in its truest sense was dead. At that time, reality was far more extreme and dramatic than any fiction, but films were complacent and decadent and passive because they couldn’t depict that reality. That’s why I think drama is a bland way of depicting North Korea. How breathtaking would it be if films were actually able to depict reality?”


Commercial films by and about defectors such as Crossing and Winter Butterfly have trickled out in the last few years, but, irrespective of quality, they have lagged at the box office. “Could it be that South Korea is just not that interested in North Korea?” Lee wonders. “It’s sad. I think it’s a very cold approach to have towards one’s own people.”

“The division of the Korean Peninsula, and indeed North Korea itself, is like a treasure trove of film material. It’s a shame that the issues involved seem to get passed over as they do,” he adds.

“(Koreans) shouldn’t look at human rights in North Korea the same way they see human rights abuses in far-flung parts of the Earth via foreign news media. We shouldn’t regard the human rights abuses of our ethnic brothers and comrades right next door as a problem in some other country.”

While Lee is hopeful that this week’s inaugural NKHRIFF could grow to encompass international human rights as a whole, he acknowledges the size of the seed, saying it does feel like an empty dinner table, but sticks to the old Korean motto, starting is half the battle.

“It’s all the more proof that up until now we just haven’t had the energy here in South Korea to concern ourselves with North Korean human rights,” he notes.

“The festival needs to become something unique with its own flavor. Not necessarily a film festival that overseas producers bring their work to, but a kind of tour festival that brings the issue of human rights in North Korea to the world. For that to happen though, we need more such festivals organized by the UN or in Europe, not just this one in Seoul.”

“An international film festival can grow in all shapes and sizes as time goes by to reflect our hopes. After a while, even though we continue to put the focus on North Korea, people might want to make it a festival that deals with human rights abuses all throughout our global village,” he muses.

“I hope this festival becomes the catalyst for the film industry here to take more of an interest in making films about North Korea,” he concludes, adding hopefully, “it would also be nice if it could have an effect on some of South Korea’s intellectuals and progressives.”