Behind the Doc: Min Sook Lee
Like most professions, documentary filmmaking attracts people from a variety of backgrounds, philosophies and training. What binds them all, however, is a desire to tell stories; their personal stories, stories behind the stories, or stories that have never been told.
It was that desire to tell stories that led Min Sook Lee, at the age of 30 and without any formal training, into her award-winning career as a documentary filmmaker. Her short career, highlighted by such films as Hogtown: The Politics of Policing (awarded Best Feature-length Canadian Documentary at the 2005 Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival) and Tiger Spirit (her self-reflecting journey to understand a divided Korea), shows clearly why she wanted to tell stories - she's good at it.
With a skillful ability to gaining access into the lives of her subjects, Min Sook Lee is a welcome voice in the world of documentary filmmaking. I asked her about her current projects, her career thus far, and the challenges of documentary filmmaking.
Let's talk about your two newest documentaries. What are they about?
I'm close to locking picture on two docs. One is called My Toxic Baby and it's kind of a funny/sober look at toxins in baby products, from my perspective as a new mom. My daughter Song Ji is now two years old and raising her has been a surprising, unexpected journey into learning about all the chemicals in our world. I spend time trying to make sense of the chemical world around us, my role as the front line of defense for my baby, and I meet other women who are are tackling the issue with alternative methods of raising babies. The funny thing is that most of the 'solutions' to the toxicity in our world are reintroductions of old world practices, like weaning ourselves from diaper dependence and going diaper-free. This sounds like a crazy thing to do, but actually most of the world goes diaper-free a lot earlier than babies in the 'privileged' or wealthier economies.
The other doc is called Badge of Pride and it's about gay cops in Toronto. This doc looks at the experiences of a few gay cops in the Toronto Police Service who are out, and finds out what it is like being gay and a cop. So many of us know that there are many stereotypes that exist when it comes to cops, and the overriding one is that male cops are presumed straight. Obviously this isn't the case, so I ask the brave gay cops who are willing to come out what their job are like.
Are there challenges of working on two documentaries at the same time?
Yup. Scheduling mostly. Creatively, it's kind of exciting. Especially because both docs required different parts of my brain in some ways. My Toxic Baby is a very personal, sometimes funny and occasionally sad look at a current issue in our times. and Badge of Pride is more of an investigatory approach into untold stories.
I think one of the great challenges of documentary filmmaking would be getting access and trust from your subjects. Is it difficult to find subjects willing to let you so thoroughly into their lives?
I learned something through my most recent productions - the more the characters I meet learn about me, the more comfortable they feel sharing their own intimacies. This seems like an obvious thing in personal relationships - when you disclose your own vulnerabilities it allows others to do the same. Often times I am looking to tell stories that are untold. Either the person telling the story will have their own livelihoods jeopardized in some way by sharing their stories or else they will be compromised somehow.
I've spoken with Mexican migrant workers, North Korean defectors and undocumented workers for example - and each time, the more the people I'm filming have required a level of trust before participating in the documentary. They need to feel that I am a storyteller that can be trusted not to distort their experiences, that will represent them in a respected context and someone who will tell their stories in a meaningful way so that there is some larger, social good that is attained from the telling of their stories. They don't want the status quo to be - they want to be agents of change. Many times the stories I"m looking for are told to me when the cameras are off, and my challenge is to bring in as much depth and substance to the stories that finally do make it in the narrative. Some of the most compelling stories are the ones that never make it to the editing room because the person disclosing the story is simply unwilling to expose themselves to the ramifications of telling the truth.
Do you have a vision of what a documentary will look/feel like before you begin? How much does that initial vision change by the end of a film?
Generally, I have a strong sense of the spirit of storytelling that I will use to frame the documentary. This is the backbone of the process for me, creatively, and it navigates the rest of the process. In terms of what I learn about facts and truths - this is always changing. I tend to go into a doc with a strong idea or strong curiosity about a certain situation and then I follow my nose. In production I am immersed in the information, expressions and experiences of the people or issues that I'm exploring and this starts filtering through all the other decisions I make. How to tell the story? I am generally interested in being truthful to the experience of the filmmaking process, so what I learn, I thread through the narrative of the doc. A lot changes in terms of facts and narrative arc - but the spirit of what brought me to the story generally remains the same to the core.
What background/training do you have in filmmaking?
I don't have any formal training. No film school, etc. I did take one weekend guerrilla video workshop that was organized by Desh Pardesh (a now defunct festival of South Asian culture/politics) over a decade ago. I had been working in radio at the time, CKLN community radio and the workshop confirmed for me that visual storytelling was a path I wanted to follow. Breaking into actual documentary production was a matter of luck and circumstance - a friend introduced me to someone who was willing to hire me in a small production company and following that I worked on my first feature with the National Film Board, El Contrato, which was about migrant farm workers in Ontario.
You've worked on documentaries with a variety of length. Is there a different approach to each? What do you enjoy doing more?
The longest cut I've done is 92 minutes, which was the feature length version of Hogtown: The Politics of Policing. The shortest was 23 minutes which was Borderless, a sort of docu-poem about undocumented workers in Canada. I've made short docs out of necessity. Both shorts, Borderless and Sedition, were commissioned by non-profit organizations. Borderless was commissioned by KAIROS, an ecumenical social justice group that wanted to look at migration issues and Sedition was commissioned by PEN Canada as a high school educational piece that looks at two voices of political dissent in Toronto's spoken word community - Boonaa Mohammed and Rafeef Ziadah. Both organizations wanted something that was short that could be included in educational workshops for their targeted communities. What I've found is that both shorts have been really successful in the post secondary educational circuit and also in public libraries. The length is not too overwhelming and they both serve as introductory pathways into issues that many people are unfamiliar with. And that is immensely satisfying for me as a doc filmmaker whose primary aim is to tell stories that help shape our views of the world and change the status quo. My agenda has always political education. Not through boot camps, but through engaging issues by the heart.
You've covered a wide variety of subjects at this point in your career. Are there themes you will continue to return to?
I think I will always look at issues of social justice. Issues of power. I'm particularly drawn towards issues of migration. Probably because I'm an immigrant, born in Korea and raised in Canada. I'm a culturally dislocated, transported, bi-ssected individual. I used to think this was a detriment. I remember growing up in a Toronto that wasn't as celebratory about it's diversity as it is now. I grew up in a Toronto where at the corner of Bloor & Dovercourt a bus of Pakistani children were laughed at and taunted with 'go Paki go', loudly on the streets, where at the corner of Bloor & Spadina a bus of drunken University students yelled 'Chink' at me and my sisters and threw tomatoes at us, one which hit me square on my back, where in the Annex, a man approached me and my sisters and yelled 'Chopstix' at us and then pulled a small knife at us, where in the school yards of Broadview & Danforth, the kids would sing song racist taunts like 'Chinese, dirty knees..etc' and pull their eyelids into mean squints. I know I was traumatized by these experiences and at the same time, my parents weren't able to help make any sense of this because one, they didn't speak the language so in fact they were more vulnerable than me, and two, they were so busy working at the gas station, at the worm factory and finally at the variety store, that they didn't have a lot of time to break down racism and xenophobia to me. Toronto used to be a very WASP city, that was very much defined by the two solitudes of the Canadian spectrum. Today I think Toronto is a trans-cultural phenomena; it is the voice of first generation immigrants who were born elsewhere or who are close to their roots outside of these borders. Toronto invites reinvention and that is exciting. The poet Dionne Brand describes Torontonians as '...born in the city from people born elsewhere." Or as my friend and editor Ricardo likes to say, ''it is a laboratory of a colonial experience, where the trans-cultural voice finds it's power." Toronto's cultural hybridity is the very feature of the city that I love.
Your film Tiger Spirit dealt as much with your personal journey to understand the divided Korea as the other characters in the film. What was it like being in front of the camera so predominantly? Do you think you would return to a film where you're so personally involved?
I've just finished another personal film, My Toxic Baby, which looks at toxins and baby products from the POV of a first time mom, and I think this will be my last for a little while. Truthfully I'm not that comfortable with the role, but I also just put personal squeamishness aside to use me as a character for storytelling purposes and that satisfied the filmmaker voice in me. I wanted to make Tiger Spirit and I knew that for a Canadian audience, the story of Korean reunification would seem hard to connect to unless I could provide a vehicle for the multiple threads that I wanted to weave into the narrative. Tiger Spirit features the voices of North Korean defectors, a South Korean worker inside the Kaesong factory complex which is a North/South joint economic project, a tiger hunter who believes finding the Korean tiger will waken Korean nationalism and then the voices of separated families. I thought the only way I could connect these diverse threads was through my own personal journey of trying to understand what reunification means. I think in particular it was important to me to put this story in it's trans-cultural context, I am a Korean born/Canadian raised filmmaker who has a very particular understanding of Korean politics, Korea's enduring divide and the post-war period in Korea. I see all these issues from away, and I apply a particular lens to them, sometimes a romantic lens - definitely the lens of someone who is far from the motherland, but trying to build connections, some that are secure and then the insecure ones which are the most interesting to look at.
Who are some of your favorite documentary filmmakers?
Docs that stand out for me are:
American Dream, War Room, Salesman, Darwin's Nightmare, Hoop Dreams, Control Room.
Behind the Doc is a series of five blogTO interviews with Toronto documentary filmmakers. The first two in the series featured Academy Award nominated filmmaker Hubert Davis and Alan Zweig. Future posts in the series will include Shelley Saywell and Ron Mann.
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