YIDFF 2023 New Asian Currents

Saving a Dragonfly
Hong Da-ye (Director)

Interviewer: Wakae Nakane

Looking back over the past through film

Wakae Nakane (WN): You started filmmaking while in high school. Could you tell us what brought you to make documentary film?

Hong Da-ye (HD): I first saw Micheal Moore’s movies when I was a junior high school student. Inspired by his somewhat funny and heart-warming style which is also sharply critical in terms of social satire, I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. Goyang City, north of Seoul where I grew up hosts two documentary film festivals, DMZ International Documentary Film Festival and EBS International Documentary Festival. I went to these film festivals in my junior high school and high school days and saw a number of documentary films. I also participated in a film festival workshop on documentary filmmaking for junior high school and high school students, providing me my first opportunity to make a documentary film.

WN: In this film the thickness of time that spans eight years emerges through cumulative layers of reflective thoughts on filmmaking. While the film shows events chronologically, its editing makes such a temporal axis ambiguous in various places, which is impressive. Why did you adopt such a structure?

HD: My emotions changed over time. The film is, on the whole, structured to show events in chronological order with changes in my sentiments. There are also many scenes in which I realize that what I feel “now,” for example, overlaps with what I felt at some point in the past. In such cases I’ve constructed a sequence in which past emotions and events are folded in the temporal axis of that “now.” At the end of the film I also added scenes in which I reflect on past events as I wanted to sum up the story so far.

WN: What does it mean to you to look back over the past through the medium of cinema?

HD: As depicted in the film, my friends and I often say that it’s like we are buried in the past. Still, in making this documentary I felt at every point that I was in the midst of an on-going process. So, only after I completed this film did I feel like I was looking back on the past for the first time.

What the camera means to me

WN: The film reflects your relationships with your friends and your family. Did you feel any change in the way of communicating with them because you had a camera?

HD: I kept my camera rolling for such an extreme length of time that my family and especially my friends stopped paying any special attention to it. In this sense, whether or not I had a camera did not make a big difference to subjects though my emotions changed a little. Because everything was centered on this documentary film; I often wanted to do this or that because I wanted to make a documentary film. For example, I thought I should roll my camera before I could have an important discussion. I always thought like that.

WN: The film depicts the situation in which you had been pushed to your mental limits. Wasn’t it hard for you to hold your camera in such a situation?

HD: I was tormented by a sort of obsession with recording my feelings and emotions. When I wanted to cry, I thought I had to roll my camera before I could cry. Or when I was in a situation where I didn’t know what was going on, I felt obliged to record my feelings in that very moment. Maybe if I hadn’t done it I might not have been able to endure those situations and my own mental state.

Records and memories

WN: The voiceover commentary in the concluding part of the film is impressive: “Our memories remained a mere record of the past. Amid the record no one remembers, I tried to scrape up any meaning left, dwelling on things that had disappeared”. Could you share your thoughts on recording and remembering?

HD: In the beginning I had to record everything because I thought that no memory would remain unless I recorded the moment. But as I proceeded that way, I found myself in a situation where all of my memories were buried in records. As I reflected on filmed footage, I tried to trace my memory. But only did records remain and my memory was lost. One day when I asked a friend of mine about an event we went through together, she could hardly remember it. It created a strange situation: I who recorded it remembered it while my friends or family who were there did not. This made me want to "revive" the record, to serve as everyone’s memory. That seems to me to have been the driving force behind the completion of this film.

WN: There is a scene in the film where a friend of yours confesses that she hated being filmed. At the same time she refers to the role of the camera as a memory device that captures the last footage taken of another friend. That scene is also moving. Could you tell us about the ambivalent aspect of a camera that has both violence and warmth with which to evoke memories?

HD: I made my first documentary when I was a second-year high school student. The documentary criticized the Korean educational system. Inspired by Michael Moore, I added satirical and comic depictions to express a defined personality. But this film was seen as problematic at school and I ended up in a conflict with the teachers. Though I didn’t care much about the teachers who viewed my work as problematic, I was sorry for involving the friends I had interviewed. In the documentary I interviewed a classmate with good grades, saying “Why do you come to school?” To this question she answered that she did not really want to come to school, she was asleep during class as class was useless, and that it was more effective to study alone. I edited her words to show that school was reduced to a mere institution for studying for entrance exams. Perhaps I wasn’t alone in thinking like this and everyone felt that way. However, teachers who saw my film blamed her, saying “Why do you sleep during class even though you are a brilliant student?” For the teachers, their position within the school may have given them the obligation to criticize the film, but I feel guilty that my depiction of the school was so brutal that I involved my friends too. This gave me a chance to realize the potential violence of rolling a camera. I wanted to explore a different approach in my subsequent films.

Depicting Korean society through personal documentary

WN: How do you feel the film comments on the situation for Korean youth, including the harmful effects of fiercely competitive university entrance exams and the placing of academic performance above all else?

HD: I believe that the film delivers quite a definitive message that critiques the educational system. We had been told by grownups around us for more than ten years since our childhood that our lives would be ruined or we would become worthless unless we were accepted by famous universities. Given this, we were made to believe that we had no other choice but to enter well-known universities. We lived under such pressure. But once we got into universities, we were told to grow up. Till then we had had no chance to think about life or face our problems squarely to contemplate them; we had spent our student days absorbed in study. All of a sudden we went out into the world and encountered many events, which we couldn’t accept easily. When I got out into the world as a university student, I felt like being pricked with needles. I wanted to convey such feelings through this documentary.

WN: When you were a high school student, was there any inclination among your classmates to act on difficulties they faced?

HD: In a word, there was no inclination whatsoever to do something about it. Of course, they all talked about the crazy situation in which they found themselves or expressed their desire to go abroad once they graduated. Nevertheless, it was accepted that they couldn’t do anything about it because they were placed in a situation where they had to run while crying or they had to somehow enter good universities as entrance exams were approaching. There was no room for such an inclination to come into being.

WN: While you use interviews with your friends, your voiceover plays an important role in the documentary narrative. Why did you intend to foreground your own voice in the form of voiceover commentary?

HD: I didn’t think about it that much. As I simply wanted to include my emotions and viewpoints, I thought that if I used my voice, I could bring out authenticity in me. So, I decided to use voiceover. I mean I wanted to deliver what I felt or witnessed as truths and I used my own voice.

WN: In your profile for the YIDFF catalog that “the essence of documentary truth resides within the emotions of its subjects” is impressive. Could you share your thoughts on documentary truth as well as the relationship between truth and emotion?

HD: I might think differently in the future, but currently I believe that there is truth in emotion. Let me tell you why I’ve come to think like this. I am not good at hiding my emotions. I’ve been ashamed of my emotional state since childhood, because grown ups around me found me childish since I showed emotions like sorrow or anger. In a lecture on “Creating Novels” at the university, a professor explained to us that the most objective element that characters in a novel can effectively show lies in their emotions and the rest is all subjective interpretations. This hit me. Until that moment I tried to eliminate emotional elements or pursue an intellectual methodology for documentary films. At the end of the day, however, I was made to realize that only a character’s emotion is objective in the truest sense and that I did not have to hide my emotions.

WN: Filming a flow of time that stretches over eight years from your teens to twenties, the footage shows your earnest attitude towards filmmaking, which is strongly connected with living. What does the medium of cinema mean to you? And what does filmmaking mean to you?

HD: In Korea there is a custom of children writing down their personal data at school called “school records,” which is also featured in my documentary film. I wrote that I wanted to be a person who could help someone in the section of my dream, which has remained unchanged until now. If I can help someone, I strongly desire to help him or her through my beloved medium of documentary film. When I was a high school student, helping someone was directly connected with flashy action—for example, I directly do something for my friend—my own understanding of helping someone has changed. I’ve realized that simply being with someone who needs something or walking with them is also a way of helping people. And the “someone” to be helped includes me.

Compiled by Wakae Nakane
Translated by Yamamoto Kumiko

Photography: Ozeki Hiroto / Video: Kato Takanobu / Interpreter: Bae Seung-Ju / 2023-10-08

Wakae Nakane
PhD candidate in the Division of Cinema and Media Studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Her research interests include documentary and experimental film. Her publications have been included in such anthologies as Female Authorship and the Documentary Image (Edinburgh University Press, 2018), and Women and Global Documentary (Bloomsbury, forthcoming).