Transformations in Film as Reality, Round 2

Fifteen Years of Committed Documentaries in Korea:
From Sangge-dong Olympic to Repatriation

Nam In-young

The first Transformations in Film as Reality series brought together articles by Komatsu Hiroshi (DB #5), Bill Nichols (DB #6), Michael Renov (DB #7), and Kogawa Tetsuo (DB #8) to explore the history and relationship between film and reality in commemoration of cinema’s centennial in 1995. Over the past decade the YIDFF International Competition has expanded its submission guidelines from film-only to video, and works shot using compact video cameras screen along with films in the festival lineup. Works frequently probe the personal and private and on occasion trigger vigorous debate. Many researchers have written on the relationship between documentary makers and their subjects, but recent current events suggest a relationship increasingly fraught with complexity. And viewers must not be forgotten. In re-inaugurating this series, we have invited writers from diverse backgrounds to address the transformation of documentary and reality in reference to documentarists, their subjects, audiences and outlets (television, distribution companies, film festivals) from different cultural and ethical vantage points. Following Kees Bakker’s first entry, in this installment Nam In-young writes about the conditions of documentary filmmaking in Korea over the last fifteen years.

The important thing is not film itself but what is provoked by film.1

Many researchers and filmmakers exploring the relationship between social movements and film have focused on documentary film. Documentary and the democratization of society—and the larger question of how documentary affects the process of social change—have given rise to many debates, but clear answers have yet to be provided from either the academy or the documentarists themselves. Jane Gaines asks what the grounds are for arguing that documentary films actually produce social change. She points out that the legacy of Griersonian documentaries such as Drifters (dir. John Grierson, 1929) and Housing Problems (dirs. Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton, 1935), known as pioneers of committed documentary, was inherited by the modern television documentary whose “balanced” point of view is in essence no point of view at all, and that Grierson’s works were never shown in the context of the social struggle.2 Brian Winston points out that considering the extremely limited number of people who saw Grierson’s documentaries, they could hardly have had any influence, much less have created social change.3

The myth of documentary’s legitimacy as an agent of social change has to do with the notion that documentary is a particular type of film that allows for strong argument on social reality. The idea that documentary has such power is based on the special relationship between the documented images and the reality they recreate. Because documentary records actual history and living people through the camera, it is considered to have an ontological relationship with reality. This indexicality of documentary plays an important role in the truth argument. Bill Nichols points out that just as the realism of fiction film is based on the suspension of disbelief of the reality it constructs, the realism of documentary is based on the reliability of the reality it deals with. We in the audience feel that the world represented by documentary is part of the historical world that we share and live in. Due to the abilities of video cameras and audio equipment to faithfully record objects, we see people and things that we also see in the world outside of the film. This quality alone provides a foundation for belief.4 This characteristic of documentary images is also what creates the difference in spectatorship. The fact that the reality recreated by documentary begins on the same plane as the world the spectators live in interferes with their engagement with the film as pure imagination or entertainment and makes them relate the story to the knowledge of the world they belong to. The commentators and interviewees often engage in direct conversation with the audience, thus confirming the spectators’ position. This convention of documentary has contributed to the myth that documentary allows for expression of strong arguments and initiates changes in the audience’s behavior and perception of reality.

Even if documentary’s influence in bringing about social change remains an unproven myth, I still find documentaries charged with the directors’ questions about social reality and their desire for social change very interesting. To name just a few, the works of Dziga Vertov, non-Western documentaries that can be categorized as “Third Cinema,” and documentaries that express marginalized voices in Western society inevitably work with and struggle against the “truth.” By questioning the “truth,” documentary has made us reflect on the language of existing documentaries and opened up the space to construct alternative constructions of truth. In this regard, the positivist questioning of whether or not documentary has influence on social change should be altered. The proposition that documentaries can change the world easily leads into the trap of believing that one can “enlighten” the audience. It also makes one accept without question certain documentaries’ practice of separating the filmmaker and the filmed; the filmmaker is subject as invisible controller while the person or group filmed are objects of spectacle. Thus the audience members become consumers of the objects and at the same time become objects themselves who are to be enlightened by the filmmaker. Thomas Waugh proposes defining committed documentary not as documentaries that change the world but as documentaries produced with the progressive desire to change the world. Such desire has shifted the power relations stemming from the separation of the filmmaker and the filmed, and has become the driving force behind the exploration of mutual and horizontal communication methods.

Likewise, questions about the indexicality of film and documentary realism—often criticized as being naive or in the worst cases as being ideological trickery—should also be couched differently. When a marginalized group desires social change, how can their conviction and commitment be strengthened using the medium of realist documentary? Alexandra Juhasz suggests that realism has a much more multiple and pluralistic political effect than it was given credit for in past decades. The form of realism can be altered according to how the film is financed, how the equipment is used, and sometimes how the film colludes with power or capital. For example, “realistic” images of women talking about their experiences in relation to the discourse that examines the relationship among new opinions, new subjectivities, the flexible political potential of individuals, collective identity and collective action can become a strategy for reconstructing women’s identities.5

The important point in making such documentaries is the relationship between the subject, or filmmaker, and the object of the film. The subject is not a hidden power that controls images behind the camera but a partner engaged in horizontal dialogue with people who want to make their existence visible and make their voices heard through the documentary’s images. In this kind of production process, the hierarchy between the subject and object collapses, and it becomes impossible to distinguish between the two. Rather than remaining in a subject-object relationship, they become subjects and partners in creating meaning through documentary images.

Kim Dong-won’s two works—Sangge-dong Olympic (1988) and Repatriation (2003)—provide interesting examples in exploring the above-mentioned issues. These two works are probably the best known Korean independent documentaries both at home and abroad. Sangge-dong Olympic deals with the urban poor’s struggle against the government’s campaign to evacuate them and clean up Seoul for the 1988 Olympic games. The film went on to become the touchstone of Korean independent documentary. Repatriation, which came fifteen years later, is the story of former North Korean spies who were sent to South Korea on espionage missions but were captured and imprisoned for most of their lives for refusing to denounce their communist ideals despite temptation and threats from the South Korean government. Again, these works mark a shift in Korean independent documentary. Both films deal with the theme of community identity, but their perspectives in viewing that issue are different. In this paper I will point out the shifts represented by these two works in the past fifteen years of Korean Independent documentary films and explore the meaning of documentary subjectivity.


It would be safe to say that the documentary genre was “born” in the Korean film scene in the late 1980s. Never before had documentaries made such a sudden and massive appearance and captured such avid interest. Documentary elements are not limited to just works that are categorized as documentaries. They can be found for example in such fiction films as A Blue Bird (Seoul Film Collective, 1985), in which the actual peasants reenact their lives in front of the camera, and The Night Before Strike (dir. Jang Dong-hong/Jangsankotmae, 1989), which was filmed at an office with workers who were actually on strike. There are many cases of short fiction films making use of documentary footage, for example the theatrically released feature film Aje-aje Bara-aje (dir. Im Kwon-taek, 1989), which used newsreel footages of student demonstrations in telling the story of a young monk. So why documentaries? In particular, why did so many documentary images concentrate on sites of social conflict such as workers’ strikes or demonstrations?

Many scholars have pointed out that realism is the first tool that oppressed groups rely on in their struggle against hostile stereotypes or lies. This is because realistic reproductions are effective in showing politically important but hidden issues. As Jane Gaines points out, “Leftist media workers cannot afford to undertake an abstract analysis or make an educational statement about representation if it is politically imperative that they make a representational reference to a ‘brutal actuality’ in order to counteract its ideological version.”6 This helps us understand the nature of documentaries in Korean society, at least in the 1980s.

It could be said that 1980s Korean society was an era when “cruel reality” was keenly felt by the people. It was an era when social crisis rose to the surface in earnest. The Park Chung-hee government came into power in 1960 through a coup d’état that trampled on all democratic procedures. Park’s long dictatorial reign gave birth to political and economic subordination to foreign powers, the divestment of all democratic rights by military authoritarianism, the expansion of monopolistic capital, and the worsening of oppressive labor management relations. Whenever circumstances threatened to weaken his power base, Park resorted to oppressive physical control and exercised all-out legal and political control over the freedom of expression and the press. As a result, social movements, which usually worked underground, simultaneously exploded onto the surface. With the Gwangju Uprising in 1980, the social movement became a mass movement, and with the June Uprising and Great Workers’ Struggle in 1987, it became a people’s movement embraced by not only intellectuals and students but also workers, peasants, the urban poor and others. The space was created for mass struggles, and workers’ strikes and protests spread nationwide. From the late 1980s, such mass struggles became the core indicator of the direction of Korean society’s present and future.

The statement that Korean independent documentary was “born” in the 1980s holds true not because there were no documentaries before that but because of the inseparable links between Korean independent documentary and the above-mentioned historical backdrop. The emergence of mass space and mass organizations gave rise to the need for methods of mass communication and sparked an interest in the mass appeal of visual media. Beginning with the Seoul Film Collective in 1982, several small film collectives were born in the late 1980s, including Film Production Hankyoreh, Labor News Production, and Jangsankotmae. The way these groups worked and existed marked a new trend in the landscape of Korean film. The majority of their members were not part of the existing film industry but university students or graduates who had grown up under the influence of the culture movement that had spread based on resistant nationalism and community culture theories. Community culture theory put forward community as a healthy lifestyle alternative to corrupt capitalist culture, and film collectives were the result of applying such theory to creative organizations. They considered their filmic activity to be a part of social movements. Mass social struggles paved the way for filmmakers in such film collectives to construct alternative community images. From 1987 onwards, when mass struggles went into full swing, works produced by the film activists concentrated on “documenting” the reality of the struggle. The central events in such works were mass rallies and demonstrations. Large-scale protests and rallies became indexes in gauging the people’s discontent with state power and structural contradictions and their desire to change those power relations. Documentaries were warmly welcomed not so much for the rational appeal of the films themselves but because of their close ties with the times when the people’s desire for social reform was at its peak.

It is important to note that films produced and distributed for education or propaganda purposes in social movements became the starting point of Korean independent documentary. Such activities became the established method of video activism, and even now numerous independent documentaries are being produced and distributed as part of this video activism. Rather than concentrating on the artistic aspects of filmmaking, video activism strives to horizontally disperse the power wielded by the media in the area of information sharing. Thus, the key issue is how communities of social others who have been marginalized by media power can organize the media for themselves.7 Korean activist video can be divided into different types depending on how the filmmaker and communities of social others relate. First there are films where the filmmaker or production team collaborates with the community in the entire process including planning, production (filming and editing) and distribution. Examples would be Battle Line (Documentary Film & Video Makers Group, 1991) co-produced with the Hyundai Heavy Industries trade union, and One Step at a Time (dir. Tae Jun-jik/Labor News Produciton, 1999), co-produced with the Chunggu-seongshim Hospital trade union. One Step at a Time documents the unethical attempts of the hospital management in hiring gangsters to break up the hospital workers’ strike. Footage filmed by the workers themselves plays a pivotal role in the documentary. The second case consists of films produced by social groups or local communities themselves after they learn production skills and techniques from independent documentary filmmakers. Examples are works shown on independent internet broadcasting station Workers’ Voices, the Labor Film Festival, Citizen Film and Video Festival and so on. The third case is where the filmmaker is commissioned by a social movement group or civic group and plans and produces a work together with that group. After the film is completed, the group becomes the main vehicle for distributing the film. Works included in this third case are People in a Flood of Media (co-produced by PURN and Christian Academy, 1995), Haengdan-dong People (1994) and its sequel Another World We Are Making: Haengdang-dong People 2 (co-produced by PURN and the Catholic Association for the Urban Poor, 2000), Shoot the Sun by Lyric (co-produced by Seoul Visual Collective and Coalition of Cultural Diversity in Moving Images, 1999), and Always Dream of Tomorrow (produced by Korean Women Workers Association, 2001). The fourth case is where the filmmaker becomes a member of the community and makes the film while living with the community. For example, the filmmaker of I Am Happy (dir. Ryu Mi-rye, 2000) became a member of the community she filmed by working as a teacher for mentally disabled adults going through occupational rehabilitation. As for The Old Miner’s Song (dir. Lee Mee-young, An Se-jeong, and Yoo Hong-gu, 1999), which deals with the closure of the mines in Sabuk, and Maehyangri in USA (dir. Go-an Won-seok, 2001) which portrays the controversies surrounding the US Army’s bombing training range in Korea, the filmmaker didn’t play specific roles as members of the community but lived on a long-term basis with the local residents. In such cases, the production process is more important than the resulting product. The participation, interaction and sharing of meaning through visual media helps each person involved reconstruct the meaning of community and heighten his or her sense of self.

Sangge-dong Olympic, which Kim Dong-won made while living with the residents who were fighting to keep their homes, can be regarded as the prototype of Korean activist video. The film is is part three of the Demolition of Sanggye-dong series, part one of which was a newsreel-style video of the three-day demolition of Sanggye-dong slum area in October 1986. Part two shows the process of forced evacuation and the violence of the thugs hired by the developers to suppress residents’ resistance. Part three (Sangge-dong Olympic) is a synthesis of films used in parts one and two as well as new footage, and it has a longer running time. It follows the lives of the residents who were driven out to the outskirts of Seoul but who remained united as a community in their struggle against forced evacuation.

The Sanggye-dong community was made up of 200 tenants as well as priests, nuns and university students who lived with them. The group fought for over a year. Kim became a member of the community while running an after-school study program for children. The process the filmmaker went through as he became a full-fledged member of the community can be seen in how the narration changes through the demolition of Sanggye-dong series. The most obvious change can be found in who did the narration and from whose point of view it was done. For part one, Kim wrote the narration script and read it himself. He wrote it in the third person, from an observer’s point of view. For part two, the narration was written in the first person and read by one of the residents. And for part three, Kim wrote the narration and had it reviewed by the residents. It was written in the first person but was read by a resident instead of Kim. Kim explained that by part two, he had become too close to the residents to write the narration script in the third person, but he still didn’t have the confidence to write it himself in the first person as a member of the community. By the time he was making part three however, he had become confident enough to write the narration in the first person. The changes in the narration show how the filmmaker relates to the filmed and how this relationship evolves. In part one, the filmmaker is positioned outside the community he is filming. The line separating the filmmaker and the filmed is also clear. In part two, the two collaborate in making the film. But little time had passed between the making of parts one and two, and so in part two, the filmmaker and the filmed did not go beyond dividing up the work to take on mutually non-interfering roles. In the process, however, the residents begin to shift from being filmed objects separate from the filmmaker to being the subjects in charge of production. In part three, the filmmaker is no longer positioned outside the community; Kim, with camera in hand, has become a Sanggye-dong resident himself. Sometimes he gets a fellow resident to do the filming. Their collective voice gains legitimacy through this experience of mutual permeation between the filmmaker and the filmed.

The frequent images of children in Sangge-dong Olympic are typical proof that the camera has become part and parcel of the community. The children often become aware of the presence of the camera and look directly into the lens as an expression of intimacy, or walk towards the camera as if approaching a close family member. To the children, the gaze of the camera is not some unfamiliar, fascinating or formidable contact with an outsider but a welcome encounter with their study group teacher, the guy next door, or their friend’s mom. Thus the separation or boundary between the camera and the filmed collapses. The credits at the end of the documentary do not list the names of the production team but merely state: “Produced by the residents of Sanggye-dong fighting against evacuation.” More importantly, the production of this documentary had a direct influence on the residents’ struggle.

I first witnessed how ladies scuffling with the riot police would suddenly turn timid when the police started taking photos. Then when I started filming the police, it was the police’s turn to lose morale. That’s how I experienced for myself why they say the camera is a symbol of power.8

At night, when I showed the residents what I had filmed of their struggle during the day, the response was positive. It seemed the residents were encouraged to deepen their insights by seeing themselves featured on film. When the police and gangsters turned up to force them out, the residents’ morale slipped. But when the camera started rolling, they would pick up the courage to move forward. It seemed that filming and being filmed gave them a sense of pride.9

The unique method of voice-over narration highlights even more clearly the characteristic of community-made documentary. In his critique of Joris Ivens’s The Spanish Earth (1937), which is regarded as the pioneering work of committed documentary, Thomas Waugh discusses the narration done by the author Ernest Hemingway. What most shocked the audience at that time was the personification evident in the narration. The low, rough, and candid voice running through the film adds an aura of personal intervention. The narrator’s voice was in sharp contrast to the famous and much-imitated narration in The March of Time (1935), in which a professional radio performer read the narration in a so-called “voice of God” that was oily smooth and ringing with authority. Rather than remaining just an anonymous voice, the narrator in The Spanish Earth becomes a vivid character and a subjective observer and participant in the events happening on the screen.10 The television documentaries that were the mainstream in Korea in the 1980s also used omnipotent and authoritarian narration read in a professional radio performer’s smooth voice. Political documentaries in particular adopted a male narrator—a practice that can be seen as a reliance on patriarchal authority. In contrast, the narration in Sangge-dong Olympic is read by a woman whose voice is coarse, unpracticed, and far from authoritarian.11 Her voice sometimes rings with shame at having to live in makeshift tents at Myungdong Cathedral “like homeless beggars” after being evacuated from Sanggye-dong, and sometimes trembles with outrage at the city authorities who refuse to let the residents to build new homes on the hard-gained land in Bucheon.

The narration in Sangge-dong Olympic is read by a female resident of Sanggye-dong. Her voice-over narration expresses anger at the Olympic rhetoric. She says, “The Olympic Games is touted as the glorious triumph of the Korean people, a festival of humankind, but to the residents of the over two hundred poor neighborhoods including Sanggye-dong, which are being threatened with evacuation, the Olympics is something we wish didn’t even exist.” The subject word “we” used in the narration constructs the narrator not as an individual but as a collective subject. She is a witness of the collective experience of the residents’ community and the spokesperson of their opinions. This constructed subjectivity functions as a sort of filter in relaying to the audience the contradictions in social reality. Throughout the story, we perceive the recreated reality through the subjects’ voice and gaze. Constructing the narration through a collective speaker in the first person can be found in other independent documentaries made in the same period as Sangge-dong Olympic, such as Battle Line (Documentary Film & Video Makers Group, 1991) and For Our Song That Will Echo through Oakpo Bay (Documentary Film & Video Makers Group, 1991). By adopting narrations read by a collective voice in the first person, these works share the common intention of transforming groups forced by power relations in society and in image reproduction to become “others” into active subjects of the social movement.12

However, one unique aspect of Sangge-dong Olympic cannot be found in other documentaries of the time which were made for the purposes of education or propaganda. The people’s fervent desire for democracy, which gushed out like water released from a dam, was thwarted through the brutal suppression of the Gwangju Uprising in May 1980, and this tragic experience triggered a renewed awakening within the movement. New emphasis was placed on a “sense of purpose” in organizing and leading the people’s aspirations for democracy, and thus there was a strong tendency to emphasize the initiative and leadership of the people or working class. Marxism was introduced when needed to serve this “purposeful” social revolution, and the trend was accompanied by a departure from a previous era driven by humanist and nationalist paradigms. This sense of purpose is the salient characteristic of the majority of documentaries produced in the late 1980s. The obsessive need to show the optimistic prospects of the movement resulted in a purpose-driven narrative that concludes the story with the symbolic victory of the people or working class and a romanticized schema that turns the people from victim into hero. In contrast, Sangge-dong Olympic veers away from this romantic hero schema. Although it regards the people as subjects of the social movement and follows the structure of conflict between the community and the enemy outside the community, the narrative is a series of struggle after struggle with no end in sight. The film opts for an open-ended conclusion in that although the Sanggye-dong residents move to their newfound home, they still find themselves locked in a tense face-off with the authorities who want to block their settlement. The significance constructed in this portrayal of the community is not ideological legitimacy but ethical legitimacy. The ethics here call on the audience to show concern for people deprived of the minimum rights to guarantee their livelihoods. It is for the same reason that the film shows not just the residents fighting off hired thugs but also their everyday lives sharing food and looking after their children. The struggle is just part and parcel of their lives, and the value that is emphasized through their lives is the sense of sharing and affection born of the shared experience of the community, which of course the producer has embraced as his own. Such values can never be bought with capital and power. To this day, more than fifteen years since it was produced, Sangge-dong Olympic continues to be a source of discussion and inspiration for documentary producers and audiences. More than anything else, this is because Sangge-dong Olympic faithfully fulfills the classic proposition posed to committed documentaries: “Show us life.”


After making Sangge-dong Olympic, Kim went on to live in other neighborhoods where residents were forced to evacuate their homes, and made Haengdan-dong People (1994) and its sequel Another World We Are Making: Haengdang-dong People 2 (2000). These two works also deal with the theme of community identity; the description of an alternative economic system that the residents experiment with introduces the audience to a community life of economic and cultural sharing that could serve as an alternative to the capitalistic values of proprietary and competition. In 1991, Kim founded PURN Production, a collective dedicated to the making of documentaries. Together with Kim Tae-il and Oh Jung-hoon, Kim began to focus on the issue of former North Korean spies who had to endure long-term imprisonment for political reasons. Repatriation, which was released in 2003, is an indication of Kim’s enduring interest in prisoners of conscience as well as a deepening of his questions about communal identity and human life that began with Sangge-dong Olympic.

Repatriation was shown to the world in 2003 through a special screening at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. In Korea, it received a warm response as the closing film of the 2003 Seoul Independent Documentary Festival. At the beginning of the next year, it received the “Freedom of Expression” award at the Sundance Film Festival, and was then invited to various film festivals and seminars around the world including the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival, Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, and the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar. In Korea, it received funding from the Korean Film Council to be released through the art film cinema network Art Plus at eight cinemas around the country. It was the first time for an independent documentary film such as this to receive a nationwide theatrical release. The cinema distribution was jointly managed with Indistory, a distributor specializing in independent films. Along with the nationwide theatrical release, PURN also adopted the traditional distribution method for independent documentaries in Korea. It contacted local social groups and schools to organize screening events, and PURN members personally visited groups or schools to deliver the videotape for screening. The screenings were often followed by a discussion with the audience on the themes of the film.

In a region still divided and caught up in the political and military tension between the two Koreas, with the South Korean mentality yet to be free from the stranglehold of anti-communist ideology, the interest garnered by a documentary dealing with former North Korean spies is quite a phenomenon. Repatriation was released in 2003, but its production actually began in the early 1990s. Kim became a neighbor with a couple of old men who had just been released after serving long sentences for working as North Korean spies in South Korea. Kim edited the film footage he had compiled and kept while maintaining close ties with these old men for more than ten years and pieced together his memories of those years to produce Repatriation. There were no concrete plans from the beginning to produce a documentary; Kim was just a neighbor meeting up with other neighbors, and most of the filming was done during personal gatherings. In this sense, Repatriation can be seen as an extended home movie. The voice-over narration in the first person bares Kim’s inner thoughts including his prejudices, uncertainties and affection for the old men, lending a diary-like feel to the documentary. Repatriation is an important case study of how a personal essay combines with public discourse and goes on to generate a political influence that moves beyond that public discourse.

Sangge-dong Olympic is also a political essay based on a home movie of sorts, but the filmmaker does not reveal himself as a real-life individual within the images he recreates. The subject “we” in the narration emphasizes the collective homogeneity within the community locked in confrontation with an outside enemy. On the other hand, in Repatriation, the filmmaker appears not as part of a community but as an individual. Through an autobiographical account, the filmmaker discovers an individual self that is in ideological or empirical conflict with the “self” constructed by the collective consciousness. Unlike in conventional documentaries, which disguise subjectivity as the ideology of objectivity or project the self onto the other, in works such as Repatriation, it is impossible to separate the subject and object in the documentary—the self is just another “other.” The personal character of Repatriation becomes an important political weapon in challenging the stranglehold of anti-communist ideology.

The intrusion of the personal is not unique to Repatriation; it is a phenomenon that has gradually spread among Korean independent documentaries since the 1990s. In order to understand this phenomenon, we need to look into the changes experienced by Korean documentary in the context of social changes that happened since the 1990s. The first civilian government came into power in 1993, local autonomy began in 1995, and an autonomous civil society emerged together with the “new social movements.” In the process, the tense relationship between citizens and state power also relaxed considerably. The super-oppressive nature of state power in the 1980s led the subjects of resistance to embrace as truth an epic heroism that rationalized the sacrifice of the individual for the good of the community and a Marxist ideology that emphasized the historical inevitability of social movement. But the shift in social power, together with the collapse of socialist systems in Eastern Europe, paved the way for discourses that cast doubts on the “revolutionary truth” that used to generate such powerful moral unity in the social movement of the 1980s.

Film collectives also began to break away from the practice of equating documentary with educational or propaganda films to regard documentary as a proper film genre. The emergence of groups specializing in documentary such as PURN, led by Kim Dong-won, and Vista, which produced the Murmuring series (1995-1999) under the initiative of Byun Young-joo, are symptoms of this shift. The changes also became evident in production methods. In the case of Seoul Visual Collective and Vista, the previous method of involving all members in the entire production process was replaced by division of labor with different members specializing in planning, directing and filming in order to enhance the films’ quality. PURN tried out a lone man production system in which each member took charge of the entire production process by her or himself. The wide range of film festivals that were founded since the late 1990s opened up channels for the reception of independent documentaries merging with art films or auteur cinema as meaningful acts of individual expression. In addition, the spread and popularization of digital technology provided the opportunity for individuals to free themselves from the constraints of professionalism to engage in diverse experiments with format. The new social movements focused on the various oppressive mechanisms that affect everyday life, while recognizing individual differences among subjects rather than uniting all the subjects into a single identity, and shifting the paradigm of knowledge to the question of how these subjects make contact with one another.

Another new trend that emerged on the terrain of independent documentary since the late 1990s is on the same track as the changes described above. This new trend is characterized by the emergence of the so-called personal documentary and a new perspective on the subjectivity that conventional documentary used to avoid. In Korea, personal documentary includes two slightly different discourses. Films that adopt an autobiographical format to give new interpretation to the meaning of what was traditionally regarded as personal, and films that do not disguise the subjective nature of documentary but reveal the filmmaker’s epistemological limitations in the text are both considered personal documentary. Documentaries similar to the Murmuring series and Three-Legged Crow (dir. Oh Jung-hoon/PURN, 1997), where the filmmaker appears on film as a voice or in person, did exist before the 1990s, but in such documentaries the filmmakers’ presence was either a remnant of the production process that they couldn’t help but leave on film as they made their observations, or a modifier used to describe the object. In contrast, the filmmakers’ presence in personal documentary is neither a flaw indicative of the incompleteness of the filming process nor a descriptive modifier but a strategic choice made in order to construct meaning.

A strategy like this works in a variety of ways. First, there are films that question the very epistemological basis of documentary’s representation through an examination of format. In such documentaries, the production process itself becomes a pivotal theme. Representative examples would be Kaleidoscope (dir. Kim Lee-jin, 2001), Leave Us, Alone (dir. Park Ki-bok, 1999) and Making Sun-Dried Red Peppers (dir. Jang Hee-sun, 1999). These filmmakers ignore the traditional positioning of independent documentary as the initiator of solemn and earnest discourse and instead introduce humor and satire into their works. In addition, documentaries such as Patriot Game (dirs. Lee Kyeong-soon and Choi-ha Dong-ha, 2001), Fuckumentary (dir. Choi Jin-sung, 2001) and The World Cup of Their Own (dir. Choi Jin-sung, 2002) borrow narrative styles from other genres such as fiction films, music videos, animations and commercials to create an ironic effect with humor and satire. Through such ironical mechanisms, the filmmaker weakens the rhetorical authority of documentaries based on explanations and observations, while making political comments such as a deconstruction of the ideology of nationalism. Second, this choice works as a strategy to reconstruct autobiographical works as political within a personal sphere. Examples would be Gina Kim’s Video Diary (dir. Kim Gina, 2002), which portrays the filmmaker’s own body as a sphere that has internalized social oppression, My Father (dir. Kim Hee-chul, 2002), which interprets the filmmaker’s relationship with his family as colonialism and patriarchal power at work, and Family Project—House of a Father (dir. Cho Yun-kyung, 2002). Abnormal characters and conditions such as anorexia, a father obsessed with militarism, and a father who has run away from home ironically make one explore the boundaries of so-called normal culture and knowledge. The third case is where the filmmaker’s voice or person is inserted into the text not as a ubiquitous self that hides any specific political position but as an individual who vacillates within the forces at play in the social construction of meaning. Such traits are evident in Patriot Game as well as Rip it Up (dir. Lee Mario, 2001), I Wanted to Be a Documentarist (dir. Lee Eun-a, 2002) and The King and His Sculptor (dir. Whang Cheol-min, 2002). In Repatriation, the filmmaker Kim Dong-won reveals his ideological limitations in understanding the long-term prisoners, and then goes on show his interactions with these men beyond this ideological terrain, which then leads him to doubt the authenticity of knowledge that had been controlling his consciousness.

Michael Renov points out that the participant-observer method of cultural ethnography documentary fails to break away from the dichotomy of self vs. other and subject vs. object that had long been used as a tool of self-defense and conquest by the West. Based on this critique, Renov introduces “domestic ethnography,” which adopts a unique method that works across the boundary between “self” and “the other.” Domestic ethnography is literally a documentation of the filmmaker’s family or people with whom the filmmaker shares close ties as a result of longstanding everyday interactions. In domestic ethnography, the filmmaker is closely related to the object through community or blood ties, which makes the documentation a complicated process of creating implications regarding “the other.” This kind of co-implication is a determining characteristic of domestic ethnography. Co-implication refers to the complexities and mutual permeation between the identities of the subjects/objects. Domestic ethnography can be seen as a kind of supplement to autobiography. It is a vehicle of self-reflection, functioning as a means to construct self-knowledge by relying on other members of the family or community.13

In Repatriation, Kim Dong-won regularly meets two old men named Kim Seok-hyung and Cho Chang-son, former North Korean spies who spent half of their lives behind bars in South Korea. In the early seventies during Park Chung-hee’s rule, while these men were still in prison, the government ordered them to publicly denounce their communist beliefs in order to prove the superiority of the South Korean regime. But these two men remained “unconverted,” refusing to give up their beliefs in the face of physical torture and pacification. The film spans the ten years beginning in 1992, when Kim meets the two men fresh out of prison, and ending in 2002, when Kim’s attempt at a reunion with the two men after they are repatriated to North Korea is aborted just before fruition. In the space of those ten years, a civilian government took over state power from military dictatorship, unconverted communist prisoners were released in phases, the thawing of North-South relations reached its peak with the inter-Korean summit talk, former North Korean spies were repatriated, North Korea went through a food crisis, and the US continued its blockade policy vis-a-vis Pyongyang. Such historic events in inter-Korean relations overlap with the changes in the personal relationship that Kim has with the neighboring Cho Chang-son.

The film begins with Kim looking back on the first time he met the two men in 1992. A priest wanted to bring the two men—who were living in a free sanitorium—to Kim’s neighborhood and asked Kim to be the driver. Kim took his camera along out of habit. In the scene showing their first encounter, Kim is sitting between the two men holding a microphone. Through his voice-over narration, Kim recalls that his position was an eyesore but that he was afraid to move lest it made things awkward for everyone. Comments on the production process and shots of Kim himself holding his camera appear frequently throughout the film. Kim’s comments are mostly about things he couldn’t catch by his camera or cut out during the editing process for one reason or other, rather than the things he is showing us. Kim explains that he couldn’t bring himself to switch on the camera because he was afraid of breaking the mood or because he thought it would be “impolite” to disturb the men’s recollection of the long years of suffering as political criminals. Such comments are reminiscent of the professional ethics which put respect for life before the documentarist’s desire to capture reality. Furthermore, such scenes indicate the tension between Kim the filmmaker and those standing before the camera. This tension heightens the awareness of how victimized the men feel living with the social stigma forced on them by anti-communist ideology, and of how the mainstream media has functioned as an active ideological tool in persecuting them. The film also makes frequent use of archival footage from newsreels, dramas, television debates, publicity films on government policies, news articles and so on to show how the mass media has portrayed North Korean spies. Kim compares the images recreated by the mainstream media with his own feelings when he meets the men. This becomes a process for Kim to examine and revise his own knowledge. Reviewing ideologically constructed “truths” through archival footage is in a way a healing process, as the audience realizes that the “truth” they know is actually constructed and that their own ideological identity is not free from such doctrines.

Kim’s interactions with the old men—who are portrayed by the mainstream media as a threat to society and a hostile force capable of creating a national crisis—are personal and all too human, causing Kim to reexamine his own ideological identity. In particular, Cho Chang-son, who lives in the neighborhood, becomes an intimate family friend and is accepted as a member of the local community where the local residents’ movement was active. But that does not mean that Kim’s relationship with them makes for a homogeneous identity like in Sangge-dong Olympic. Despite more than ten years of friendship, the tension engendered by ideological, cultural and emotional differences remains. Repatriation shows that such differences cannot be obstacles in how human beings relate to one another. A woman member of the support group for long-term prisoners of conscience says in the film, “It’s difficult to cross the line in a relationship. But so what if we can’t cross that line? We can still become close.” And Kim himself realizes that “ideology is just one part of human reason, and reason is just one part of many human qualities.” Forcing someone to give up her or his differences is nothing more than the ambition to conquer. Like the way the men were coerced to denounce their communist ideals under Park’s regime, conquest has to be accompanied by violence. The men say that they were able to endure such cruel coercion and hold on to their beliefs because giving in to violence would be like giving up their character and dignity as human beings.

Repatriation shows how national division and a blind hatred of communism left deep wounds in individual lives and identities. At the same time, it presents us with the philosophical foundation for the reunification movement. Rather than resolving ideological and cultural differences, we should search for ways to form relationships while acknowledging and respecting each other. Like the video letter that helped connect Kim, who couldn’t go to Pyongyang, and Cho, who couldn’t come back to Seoul, we can hope that documentary will continue to help the many “others” with their many differences stay connected and overcome the obstacles created by authority.

—Translated by Cho Eung-joo



1. Fernando Solanas, “Cinema as a Gun,” Cineaste Vol. 3, No. 2 (Fall 1969), p. 20.

2. Jane Gaines, “Political Mimesis,” Collecting Visible Evidence, eds. Jane Gaines and Michael Renov (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), p. 85.

3. Brian Winston, Claiming the Real: Documentary Film Revisited (London: BFI, 1995), pp. 61-62.

4. Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), pp. 1-4.

5. Alexandra Juhasz, “They Said We Were Trying to Show Reality—All I Want to Show Is My Video: The Politics of Realist Feminist Documentary,” Collecting Visible Evidence, eds. Jane Gaines and Michael Renov (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), pp. 216-239.

6. Jane Gaines, “Women and Representation: Can We Enjoy Alternate Pleasure?,” Issues in Feminist Film Criticism, ed. Patricia Erns (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 83.

7. Kim Sang-hui describes the nature and purpose of the alternative media movement as follows: “First, the movement recognizes the interactive and cross-directional nature of the media and redefines and utilizes its social and human role, thereby actively making use of it as an important medium in social progress and democratization. Second, the movement criticizes mainstream media’s elitism, commercialism, unilateral communication of information and the uniformity and simplicity of its contents. Third, the movement actively takes advantage of new technology that has democratic potential. Fourth, the movement induces the receivers’ or citizens’ voluntary approach and participation, thereby creating media networks that are not only national but also local.” Research Center for Progressive Media Movement, History of the Film Movement: From Entertainment to a Weapon for Liberation, ed. Prism (Seoul: Seoul Publication Media, 2002) explores the historical experience of various localities around the world from the alternative media movement’s perspective.

8. Kim Dong-won, “Filming Reality and Directing Hope,” Interview with Ahn Jung-sook. The Hankyoreh, (22 June 1996)

9. Kim Dong-won, interview by the author, January 2003.

10. Thomas Waugh, “Joris Ivens’s The Spanish Earth: Committed Documentary and the Popular Front,” Show Us Life: Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary, ed. Thomas Waugh (Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1984), p. 124. Waugh points out the personification at play not only in the sound but also in the construction of images in The Spanish Earth.

11. Julianne Burton points out in her discussion of Latin American documentary that Manuel Octavio Gomez’s A Battle Story uses the subjectivity of the narration to break away from the authoritarian model. The narration is read by an omnipotent and anonymous male voice, but its tone is poetic and emotionally rousing, and talks about the people using the second person “you” or first person “we.” The narration overlaps with the sounds on the screen such as the workers’ song. Burton’s evaluation of such variations is that transforming God’s voice into the voice of the people’s spokesperson is an attempt to democratize the authoritarian form of speech. Julianne Burton, “Democratizing Documentary: Modes of Address in the Latin American Cinema, 1958-72,” The Social Documentary in Latin America, ed. Julianne Burton (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990), p. 55.

12. Positioning the individual as part of a community and emphasizing communal solidarity was the cultural characteristic of the resistance movement in Korea in the 1980s. Kim Dong-chun defines the democratic and revolutionary movement of the eighties as “a struggle to occupy the historical summit between those who wanted to bring back the memory of the Gwangju Uprising and those who wanted to erase it.” That is, the people who led the social revolution in the 1980s tried to “transform the shame of having survived the Gwangju Uprising into hatred of the dictator.” In various rallies and teach-ins, the rhetoric “Remember Gwangju” appeared without fail. “By endlessly reminding themselves of the Gwangju Uprising, they wanted to confirm again and again who the enemy was. This memory was endlessly reproduced for future communities. It also had a strong influence on people who were not actively involved in the movement, thus forming a common sense of shame and responsibility that bound an entire generation. This common sentiment shared by a whole generation was the first public ethic and collective morality to be formed since national liberation. What these people were mouthing were radical and revolutionary slogans, but what characterized their actual behavior was out-and-out anti-individualism and communalism values.” Kim Dong-chun, “The Growth of Democratic Revolution Movement in the 1980s and its Nature,” The June Democratic Uprising and the Following Ten Years in Korean Society, ed. Korean Academy Association (Dangdae, 1997), p. 99.

13. Michael Renov, “Domestic Ethnography and the Construction of the Other Self,” Collecting Visible Evidence, eds. Jane M. Gaines and Michael Renov (University of Minnesota Press, 1999), p. 141.

Nam In-young

Film critic and professor at Dongseo University, Korea. Received her Ph.D. in Film Studies at Chungang University, Seoul. Programmer for the Seoul Independent Documentary Film and Video Festival. Served on as a jury member for NETPAC at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2001.