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Dreamland and Disillusion: Interview with Dai Sil Kim-Gibson


by Megan Ratner


Film Quarterly

Fall 2011


Born in northern Korea during the Japanese occupation, Dai Sil Kim-Gibson makes films about the post-World War II Korean diaspora of which she is a part, having become a U.S. citizen. Most of her work has little or no narration, her aim to “give a voice to the voiceless,” to preserve histories given short shrift or even forgotten altogether. She films her subjects among their homely possessions, the camera often lingering over family photos, the interviews intimate and candid. Told in a direct, unadorned style, Kim-Gibson’s films address various forms of oppression, implicitly examining American power, domestic and international. Her stories of Korean Americans contribute to a clearer picture of America’s profound and haphazard shaping of modern-day Koreans: politically, of course, but perhaps even more through the movies.

 In Sa-I-Gu (1993) and Wet Sand: Voices from L.A. (2004), Kim-Gibson uses the perspective of Korean American women victims to detail the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Both films center on the accidental shooting of Edward Jae Song Lee, the eighteen-year-old man who was the only Korean American among the fifty-three fatalities. Using a combination of archival photographs, surveillance tapes, stock footage, and interviews, the films move beyond the mainstream “race war” tag. Mrs. Lee tells the story of how she came to know, slowly and painfully, that her son was dead. In other sequences, she and the other women speak of their disillusion with “dreamland” America, a country they expected to be “just like the movies.” Bleak street scenes attest to the “official negligence” (in the words of journalist Lou Cannon) that allowed the situation to escalate. Seen in the context of the women’s suffering, even the overfamiliar looting, blazes, and gunfire start to seem less generic.

 Between these two films, Kim-Gibson made a pair of historical films about forced labor. During World War II, tens of thousands of Koreans were brought by the Japanese to support the war effort on Sakhalin Island. At the end of the war, the Soviet Union took control, absorbing the Koreans into their workforce. They slid into long-term limbo, waiting for permission to return to a country that bore no resemblance to what they remembered. A thousand of them were still alive when Kim-Gibson shot A Forgotten People: The Sakhalin Koreans (1995), described by the Los Angeles Times as “a bracing reminder of the human victims in the global chess game played by superpowers.”

 Shot by fellow-filmmaker and frequent collaborator Charles Burnett, Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women (2004) alternates between victims’ harrowing testimonies and disavowals by former Japanese soldiers, recruiters, and contemporary scholars. Archival footage and a few reenactments round out the film, along with striking shots of the Korean countryside out of which these women were forced into service. The women’s matter-of-fact telling testimony to the damage done; the glimpse of one terrible scar enough to imagine what they endured. Less a narrative than an assemblage, Silence Broken spotlights a form of wartime collateral damage still too little acknowledged.

More recently, Kim-Gibson incorporated some of her own history in Motherland: Cuba Korea USA (2006). A portrait of two very different Korean–Cuban sisters, one an enthusiastic communist living in Havana, the other an arch-conservative Miamian, the film is the first in a two-part project to look at the meaning of home.

 This interview took place on March 24 following the 2011 Korean American Film Festival New York, which featured a retrospective of Kim-Gibson’s films.


Megan Ratner: After a career in academia and arts administration, what prompted you to begin making films in your fifties?

Dai Sil Kim-Gibson: I’ve always known that documentary could be a good means to confront reality and try to change it, especially the discrepancy between rich and poor. I’ve been concerned about those issues as long as I can remember. In 1962, I came from Korea to Boston University to get a Ph.D. My family became poor after the Korean War. I thought I’d get a good position to help them. Studying religion, I learned to ask questions rather than look for answers. The Ph.D. process taught me to analyze, synthesize, how to talk, and how to teach. Without my knowing, it was preparation for making the films. I’m good with people. I play with them, I cry with them, I laugh with them. And they respond to me. Filmmaking is teamwork and I’m good at finding talent. On Sa-I-Gu, I knew that I couldn’t make a film myself without a really good writer–director and so I called Charles Burnett up. We became friends and he became my colleague, mentor, sometimes my employee.

So if you know how to do all these things, if you can ask questions—and say I don’t know—and utilize other people’s talents, you can make films. I am also able to abandon my notion of where it has to end, what my goal is, how we should go. Because even though I direct, I let my films’ subjects direct me. They are my bosses. So I hear their voices. It’s the story they give me. A lot of young filmmakers these days think they can make a film because they can shoot, cut, and play some tricks. It makes me very sad. You can’t make good films without real preparation.

Do you see yourself as a historian?

At a basic level I’m bringing back forgotten history. I avoid sensationalizing or looking for conventional drama. History was always written by the powerful. I’m rewriting history, correcting history. I like to think that Sa-I-Gu, Wet Sand, Forgotten People, and all the other films stir something in an audience. That stirred feeling might not express itself directly but a spectator may think, for example, how horrible it is to deprive a woman of her life and tread on it.

How do you understand documentary-making?

Documentaries give you information, they educate. But the real power is something that sticks to both your heart and mind. Many documentaries are like mainstream reporting. Or the makers put too much of themselves in the film. Part of the reason I don’t like Michael Moore’s films is that at the end of it all, I feel like it’s just him. He deals with subjects cleverly and sometimes in a fun way, but his ego comes up so much that I feel repulsed.

Would you say a bit more about the collaboration with Charles Burnett?

We’ve been friends for the last twenty years. I’m a quite intuitive filmmaker. I do talk with Charles a little beforehand. But when Charles and I work together, we let each other be. I trust him and he trusts me, you know, and we only talk to each other when it’s absolutely necessary. We’re in synch.

By largely avoiding narration in your films, do you think you ask a lot of the viewer?

Most documentaries are structured as a story. But I have to let my subjects have their voices. The larger story is made up of all those people who tell their stories. In the end it’s the viewers who organize their own stories. I’m not going to do it for them. If I took all the trouble to make a film and if these people relive their agony and pain, the viewers need to give something of their own. I want them to be in it. And if even only two or three people are really touched, that’s what counts.

Can you talk a bit about choosing to focus on a single death in the Los Angeles riots?

If you’re in a minority and you do some things and if the mainstream or those people in power report about you, you become an issue and a thing, a statistic. Let’s just take the example of Edward Jae Song Lee, who died. All the mainstream would have done with that is to say there were fifty-three people who died during the riot. Koreans suffered more than half the property damage, but there was only one Korean death, accidentally shot by another Korean. By allowing Mrs. Lee to tell the agony of finding that Edward was dead, I humanized a story of facts and figures.

I was at the Human Rights Festival in New York City with Sa-I-Gu in 1993. During the Q&A—I will never forget this— an African American man raised his hand and said, “Do you have any fucking idea how many African American young people died that day? Why are you making such a big fucking deal about one person who died?” I’ve never experienced such a hostile, powerful question. Even though the way he put it was unfair, I think I understood his anger. I was just silent for two seconds. Then I told him I was twelve years old at the time of the Korean war. When I first saw a dead body, it was beyond shock. My brother was hit by shrapnel and I had to cross over dead bodies to find him a doctor. By that time, I had seen many dead bodies. I became numb. Can you imagine how many American kids and American parents for that matter sit in their living rooms watching the television? They see so many mass deaths, thinking nothing of it. If you want to humanize life, you also have to humanize death. This detailed story of Edward Lee is my way of telling people that for every death there is a grieving mother. The audience and my questioner were as quiet as if cold water had been poured on them. I was shocked and grateful and I didn’t blame him because he had the right to be angry. Our age ignores death. If you can’t humanize death, if you can’t grieve it, you can’t really celebrate life either.

There’s anger, but even more a sense of confusion. Do you agree?

In the end, confusion is not a lack of understanding. It’s more understanding. Mainstream reporting and some people in power want to make everything clear to people—at the expense of the very issues and people they deal with. They can’t. If it’s complicated, leave it as complicated. Give people a chance to think.

Would you say that Sa-I-Gu and Wet Sand are about desperation?

I would say they’re about how to live a life in an unjust society. About human conflict, human struggle, and human spirit. Struggle, then, rather than desperation. The women I interviewed are desperate in their situation but they are not desperate people. They are struggling people.

Do you think things have worsened since the riots?

I think politically, legally, structurally some things have changed. But that doesn’t change the problem of inner racism. Because when people were able to express their racism and their contempt outwardly without worry, they did it. Things have become worse in L.A. Charles says that if there’s another riot they will take it to Beverly Hills and I believe that.

What I feel so urgently about in this society is that minorities should not be pitted against each other. We should unite and go after the power that wants to keep minorities fighting with each other.

How did you get involved with the comfort women project, Silence Broken?

I was invited to translate their testimony. They became a public issue and all kinds of people—young, old, Korean, Japanese—wanted to do something about the comfort women. And they would all go to Seoul and there was a place called the Sharing House where all these grandmas lived together, about seven of them in the same house. Everyone came back with the same material because those grandmas were trained to answer certain questions with the same answers. No one in my film lived in that house. I went around and found women who lived alone. I presented them in their own environment, as human beings who live their own lives just like you and me.

Can you comment on the landscape cutaways in Silence Broken?

There are practical reasons first of all. I never had enough visual cutaway material. But there’s a more constructive reason too. We’re not just talking about what these women encountered and experienced as comfort women. And not just about the hard life they’ve had since. I tried to symbolize the life they could have had, the life they lost. Those shots show the world they left, the rice field, the family life, a natural setting where they could have become somebody’s wife, raised kids, become regular human beings. When one of the comfort women shows a deep scar in her spine, she says if I were reborn I’d like to be a normal woman, get married, have kids and be loved by one husband. They might not have had money, but those beautiful azaleas, the kids, the little gardens were all there and taken from them. So the audience needs to see that. If you overemphasize what they endured, what they suffered, if you dwell on the pain, then the women just become issues.

You dealt with another kind of forced displacement in A Forgotten People.

They were abandoned, they were forgotten people, as one of my subjects said. They survived, but they didn’t live. Fifty years of life they spent in waiting. And then when they went back, what they waited for had changed. So it’s a tragic story of the twentieth century, war and then Cold War. More than anything else they blame their motherland—just like the comfort women. Because if nobody takes care of you, your own parents should. And they feel abandoned. They experienced both: actual war and the cold war. It’s a universal displacement story.

Environment also shapes the subjects in Motherland.

I was interested in what makes home home. Martha [the Havana sister] supported what socialism is trying to do. She had real conviction. The only criticism she made was that she hoped Cuba would be a little freer. But Camilla put herself completely into American society and made herself see the world in a way that was convenient. That’s why I showed the Miami Liberty area. Charles and I shot that area in 1990 and it was worse when I went back in 2006. Camilla became like many immigrants who want to be part of this society, a convert. In the end it didn’t come down to their Cuban or Korean backgrounds. It was just about them as women.

Can you talk a bit about being a Korean-born U.S. citizen?

America would become a better country if every citizen realized the fundamental fact that it’s a nation of immigrants. America doesn’t own this land and doesn’t own these people. The deep flaws of American society should be examined. Until we do that, minorities are always scapegoats. So I’m always on the side of the weak, on the side of the oppressed people, exposing the unfair social structure that has been perpetuated for so long.

American nationalism is something that to me is tragic. I think the twenty-first century is a century of migration. People move around, forced or by choice, either way they move around. So thinking of a place as a home is dismantled. When I left North Korea, I knew that I had to find a new home elsewhere. In this age of migration, I think nationalism and home as a set place should be stirred and shaken up. Home was always for me about people not a place. Human history starts with nomads. This nationalism age is over. Superpower is over.

What are you working on now?

I want to make a film about North Korea. I have not been back. A while back, Jon Alpert and I tried to go to interview North Korean comfort women and Kim Il Sung when he started his nuclear program, but we didn’t get permission. All the films about North Korea have the same assumptions: there are two or three monsters that are living in North Korea, Kim Jung Il and his son or whoever. The citizens are puppets and they do what they are told to do and they have no purpose. North Korea is dangerous because they are playing with nuclear fire. And filmmakers are very restricted, so their assumptions are confirmed.

I’m nearly seventy-three now. Korea is not my home, but I’d like this film to be a pilgrimage, though I don’t like making my films too personal. I wanted to go to my hometown, but couldn’t get permission. So Permission Denied is my title and concept. I plan go to the demilitarized zone and to other parts of South Korea. To look at my hometown from a distance. I want to examine the division between north and south, to look at America’s role from 1945, through the Korean War and until this day. I remember when the Americans arrived, I thought they were angels who had come to save us. How false that was. If America as an occupying power had paid some attention to what Koreans wanted there’s a chance that we would not have divided. What is even more shocking is that what they did in the Korean War sixty years ago they’re doing again in Iraq, in Afghanistan. It’s appalling. I want to address that issue in this Permission Denied film. If I have enough energy left that’s the film I want to make.