Judy Lieff’s Report from South Korea

Judy Lieff traveled as a film envoy to Seoul, South Korea with the American Film Showcase. Below are a series of daily reports from her time there.

Tuesday, September 24

Anyang Arts High School

Ten hours after arrival and with five hours of sleep, I plunged into my first excursion in South Korea. Accompanied by Alex Ago, Cultural Affairs Officer Margaret Hawley, and Senior Cultural Affairs Specialist Eun Kyong Choi, I traveled to an area on the outskirts of Seoul. It was an overcast day thick with humidity. After a jolt from coffee courtesy of Alex, I snapped awake as I stepped out of our van and watched my purse containing money and passport land with a thud in the three feet deep drainage canal running along the front of the school. Before I could blink the driver had kindly hopped down and gracefully retrieved it – to which I was much obliged.

We were greeted by the principal and lead film teacher at the entrance to the main building of Anyang Arts High School. Following introductions, we were led to the school cafeteria for a traditional Korean lunch consisting of seaweed soup, rice, vegetables, and a chicken cutlet. Everyone paused as Alex asked: “How does one cut the chicken without a knife and fork?” before bursting out laughing at our western habits of eating. As I turned toward Alex, I saw the film teacher use a spoon and chopstick to break up the chicken. After lunch, we were led across a dry dirt athletic field to the performing arts building and into a large auditorium.

As we coordinated technical set up for my introductory talk on the relationship between dance and film, students in uniform began filing into the space. It was inspiring to see so many students from various departments participating. (I learned later that this workshop was the first time the various departments would be collaborating.)

The three hour workshop began with some brief introductions by Margaret (Meg) Hawley and me before I presented some video samples of dance film styles and introduced the workshop plan for the day. Chatter and excitement welled within the auditorium as I began organizing the 100-plus students into groups of five. Each group consisted of a film or photography student, a creative writing major, a theater major and a couple of dancers. The specifics for the assignment were given and the groups scattered to various architecturally interesting locations of their choice to work. There were approximately twenty-seven groups and not one project mimicked another even if a location was shared. It was impressive to see high school students so focused and enthusiastic about working together. I only wish I had had more time to work with them.

Students created a one to two minute piece and were given approximately 90 minutes to work. There was enough time to give feedback to almost every group after their first draft. Some groups were sent back to re-work their material. Overall, it was an inspiring experience. Everyone was enthusiastic and easy to work with despite the language hurdles, and I would relish the opportunity to do it again.

Hanmiri, Korean Restaurant – Dinner Meeting

That night, I had the opportunity to attend a dinner with group of South Korean female leaders from the film, health, and disability rights sectors. Participants included Gyuhee Bang, Head of the Cultural Foundation for the Disabled and former Cultural Advisor to the President in Korea; Haesook Huh, Head of Women in Building a Better Society for Tomorrow (an NGO supporting job creation for disabled women); Young Lee, film director and Head of WOM – Association for Women in Film; Soin Hong, Main Programmer for the Seoul International Women’s Film Festival; Myongok Kang, Head of Myungin Hospital (a women’s hospital); Eunju Kim, Director of the Center for Women’s Politics (which works with multi-cultural and North Korean defector women’s groups). Needless to say, after teaching the three-hour workshop on my first day in South Korea, I was famished and jet lagged entering our dinner meeting. Nevertheless, it was an honor to meet this group of accomplished women. We discussed issues such as women defectors from North Korea and the climate for women directors in South Korea. I also learned about the inroads being made for women with disabilities and the Para Olympics being planned for 2014 in South Korea.

Wednesday, September 25

Korea National University of Welfare

The first thing I noticed as we entered the lobby of the school was the wheelchair ramps for the school’s ATMs. I had never seen that before. As we moved through the school on a tour, we were introduced to amazing technological devices designed for people with a variety of physical and mental challenges. The architecture was filled with light and the atmosphere was quite peaceful.

It was noted that the school was situated quite far from Seoul, which is densely populated with universities. We were informed that the school was purposely placed far away from other educational institutions because the disabled have historically been considered “outcasts” in society.

Eric Neudel, director of Lives Worth Living, led the beginning of the Q&A in the school’s lecture hall. It was a powerful introduction addressing equality and grass roots activism. I spoke after Eric and decided to begin by introducing the ASL version of the title for Deaf Jam and asking the students to come up with the Korean sign language version of the title. The purpose was to engage the students in an activity that would help to facilitate dialogue. The result was terrific and everyone (hearing included) adopted the new-signed title.

After I spoke, we opened up the talk to questions from the students. A myriad of hands flew up to ask Eric questions about activism in the States. The questions were focused, and one student expressed a criticism of the current disability rights organizations in South Korea. It was an intimate and powerful reception. Eric encouraged the students to “act” by stating, “ If you want change, then you need to do it yourselves.”

Most of the questions addressed to me pertained to the history of my connection to the Deaf community. I think it surprised them to find that I was a hearing person. It was a joy to meet and be embraced by the deaf students. Even though American Sign Language is quite different from Korean Sign Language, we managed to find a way to communicate. Many of the students wanted to know how they could start creating their own sign language poetry. One of the goals of Deaf Jam was to revitalize sign language poetry – an endangered art form, and here I was witnessing the realizing of that goal.

Lunch followed at a nearby restaurant surrounded by its own farmland and fields of produce. The restaurant itself held artifacts and handmade pottery. The attention to detail was remarkable. At lunch, our discussions continued on sign language poetry and how deaf students attending the lunch might be able to start making their own work. We also discussed a follow-up project involving a residency with one of the artists depicted in Deaf Jam. I have already begun to start plans for this with the embassy.

Korea Nazarene University

Lunch was cut short as we were whisked away to the next destination – Korea Nazarene University. The difference between the two schools was drastic. The Nazarene University is an integrated school in an urban environment with a much larger endowment than the University of Welfare, which is situated in the countryside. After meeting the Dean in a boardroom, we were escorted through an atrium area alive with many students in lab coats gathered around various science exhibits and led to a small classroom for our Q&A.

Questions concerned characters from both films, our personal connections with the subject matter, and where the characters are today. Both Lives Worth Living and Deaf Jam present a desire to get rid of prejudice. At one point Eric responded to a question about what his motivation was with the making of the film by stating: “It’s not only disability rights that interests me, it’s that whole issue of discrimination and putting an end to it. That’s really important because it’s fundamental to people’s identity, and to their participation within society.”

Other questions included:

Where did you receive support from – the U.S. government?

What was the episode that had the most impact on you?

Overall the questions at both schools were quite pointed and perceptive.

As with the University of Welfare, many of the students at the University of Nazarene were hungry to learn how to create sign language poetry. I couldn’t have asked for a more positive and proactive reaction to Deaf Jam.

We then took the KTX bullet train back to Seoul. I couldn’t stop remarking about how immaculate the station and train was – a shocking contrast to the subway and train stations in New York City.

Ilpumdang (shabushabu) Restaurant – Dinner Meeting

After a short break at the embassy offices, we split up. Alex and Eric went to attend an America Cinema Evening, and I went to met with Korean contemporary dancers and choreographers. I have to admit, I was exhausted by the time we reached the restaurant for the final and third meeting of the day. The dinner was held in a fabulous traditional Buddhist temple restaurant where we removed our shoes and sat on the floor. (My dancer background relished this!) After introductions, we spoke about the necessity for E.P.Ks (electronic press kits) for dancers and choreographers. Eun Kyong Choi and I spoke about creating an exchange program for dance majors to attend the college where I am working for the purpose of studying video for dancers. Discussions also included the climate for “inclusion” within the dance community and utilizing dancers of various abilities for projects.

Halfway through the dinner, there was a performance of traditional Korean dance. I left with a package of materials on all the artists I had met and will be following up with everyone. There are choreographers in the States that I would like to connect some of these artists to for potential collaborations.

Thursday, September 26

Korea Producers & Directors Association

Eric, Alex and I checked out of the Westin Hotel in Seoul for an overnight in Donggang. We traveled by bus from the embassy offices along with the attending producers and directors. The two-hour ride gave us a chance to mingle and chat with some of the Korean producers. Many of the producers worked for broadcast television and only a few were independent.

Shortly after arrival at the resort in the afternoon, our seminar with the Korea Producers & Directors Association began. Eric attended a Lives Worth Living screening and Q&A while I took a short break. The resort was situated in a mountainous region, yet all the trees were quite short so the landscape appeared somewhat like Vermont though oddly dissimilar at the same time. Dinner followed Eric’s Q&A in the early evening. The atmosphere became more relaxed as bottles of wine, beer, and whiskey were shared at the tables. At one point the Mayor (a Richard Gere look-a-like) made an entrance and formally introduced himself to all of us. After dinner, we all loaded onto the bus and headed to the Byeolmaro Astronomical Observatory for stargazing.

Friday, September 27

Donggang Cistar Resort

After a traditional Korean breakfast in the cafeteria, we headed into the conference room for a screening and discussion of Deaf Jam during day two of the Korea Producers & Directors Association seminar.

Some of the questions pertained to access in a school environment and what the current status is for the characters in the film. At one point a very important question came up regarding perceptions and attitudes of the disabled. One producer expressed his belief that disabled people desire to be pitied. I offered to clarify that I did not think they wanted to be pitied but that rather they want their needs to be recognized. The discussion developed into a talk about the responsibility of media programming to affect social change and challenge perceptions. I tried to emphasize the importance of including characters of various abilities in programming and cited a couple of current programs that are doing that in the States.

I think that the sessions for both Eric and I with the producers was extremely important for cultural exchange and creating a dialogue for addressing “inclusion” in popular culture. There is still a long way to go, but these kinds of steps make all the difference.

Taj Indian Restaurant – Dinner

Our final evening ended with a dinner with independent filmmakers, including Dong-hyun Kim, Chang-Jae Lim, Emmanuel Moonchil Park, Yeonah Paik, and Eunah Kim. After introductions, Eric surprised everyone with the question: “Why do you do what you do?”

It was a philosophical moment and each filmmaker had an interesting response. This “ice breaker” led to a discussion about the climate for independent filmmakers in both the U.S. and South Korea.  We had a lot to share, and it was fantastic to close the trip with a dinner among peers.  The challenges of finding funding seemed to be a common denominator, even though there is a much smaller pool of filmmakers in Korea applying for government funds than there are in the States. Our discussions continued into the street as we left the restaurant, and I hope to keep it going through emails and Skype.

I think any new experience changes you in some way. The trip to South Korea is going to echo in my mind for days to come. The organization and programming by the U.S. Embassy Seoul was outstanding. While I felt as though the days were often dense and overwhelmed with meetings, I appreciated the itinerary I was scheduled to participate in. To quote Eric Neudel, “I believe that when people fully participate within the society and they have complete access to jobs, mobility, and life in general, then differences disappear.” I think the cultural exchange in South Korea is already having positive repercussions, and I look forward to all that will be unfolding as a result.

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