The interview with Ms. Min Sook Lee, an award-winning film director, took place at the Sheraton Hotel, where she attended a conference, in downtown Toronto on November 22, 2009. Upon arrival, Ms. Lee greeted the JoinTheLeaders team with a smile that lit up the room, even after her long day at her conference. The interview was conducted in a quiet corridor of the hotel with faint classical music being played in the background. Even so, we encountered many of her friends/acquaintances, who stopped by to congratulate her on her latest Gemini award for best documentary director in Tiger Spirit. The following interview depicts the long journey of a self made and very successful film director who overcame countless obstacles to stand where she is today.
Please tell us about your background and where you grew up, especially regarding the Korean- Canadian community.
I was born in Kwangju, Korea in 1969 and I came to Canada when I was 3 years old. When my family first came to Canada, Toronto had a very small Korean-Canadian community; the community was basically Christie & Bloor. That was it. There were 2 or 3 Korean restaurants and a few variety stores. The community was very tight due to its size: There were many church events and galbi picnics.
Most of my work was formed from the experience I gained as an immigrant and from the sacrifice of my parents. When I think about what my parents went through, I get really sentimental and emotional because they came here for us (my sisters and I). If they stayed in Korea, they probably would have been a lot better off. My parents were in their 40s and they didn’t speak any English. My mom died when I was 12, and my father is in his 80s, but he still doesn’t speak English. My parents worked at stores, 16 hours a day from 6AM till midnight. Even so, we were a very poor family.
When we arrived, they worked all the time. Sometimes I felt like they were in prison; It was like they were trapped behind the counter. Due to their limited English proficiency, their lives were prescribed and constrained by variety stores. On top of that, they faced a lot of racism. I witnessed a lot of injustice and first-hand racism. I spent a lot of my childhood interpreting for my parents all the time (eg. Talking to government officials about taxes) As a result, we grew up with this fearless idea of taking care of our parents because they were very vulnerable. Like many other immigrants, my sisters and I went through identity crisis. My parents wanted us to succeed. But success in their perspective was integrating into the Canadian culture and erasing our identities. While I was growing up, I identified myself as ‘white’ psychologically, culturally, and socially. I did not see myself as Korean. I’ve met many Koreans like myself and they’ve often spoken of being confused when they saw themselves in the mirror. For the longest time, everything I read in books and saw on TVs was reflected back to me to integrate into white mainstream culture. Asians in the media, if they made any type of appearance were all stereotyped and made fun of.
The one thing that my father gave me that helped remind myself of my Korean ethnicity was my name! My father said “the reason why you are Min Sook, not Mary is because you should be proud of being Korean”
Stereotype and racism for Asians were so negative that I never really wanted to associate myself to being Asian. So I had to consciously go through deprogramming about cultural identity. In my early 20s, I started really questioning what it meant to be Korean and who I was, etc. Then I took my first trip back to Korea. Going back to Korea when I was in early 20s was a huge experience for me. Realizing that Koreans are not the way that they have been stereotyped by the media, I could see a whole range of Korean characters and identities for the first time. For this reason, I think for all Kyopos and 1.5 generations, going to Korea is one of the most empowering and must-do experiences.
I grew up in downtown Toronto. I think the time I was growing up, downtown Toronto was very exciting because Toronto was just starting to recognize itself as a multicultural city, and that was something to be celebrated. I firmly believe the introduction of people with colors into Toronto really re-vitalized the city. It happened at the same time when the cultural activism was central in Toronto. Also, social revolution was occurring in the mainstream and we were having a say in the changes of our Asian culture. That made Toronto a really exciting place to be and I was one of the beneficiaries of that change.
Some of my Korean friends were ashamed of working at variety stores. In the Korean culture, there is a perspective that professions such as doctors, lawyers, and judges are something to be proud of. Along the same perspective, if your profession requires getting your hands are dirty and dark skin as a result of working outside, it is not a respectable profession. This is the type of classism in our Korean society that I found really uncomfortable. I never liked it because it really denigrates most working Koreans. Companies such as Hyundai or Samsung are run by people who work 16 hours a day!
What made you decide to go into the field of film/documentary production industry?
While working in a variety store, my only joy came from reading magazines because the job was so boring. We would get new magazines on Thursdays and by Saturdays, I would have read them all. Mondays, Tuesday, and Wednesdays were the desert. So I was obsessed with the media when I was growing up. I read everything from TIME and Vogue magazines to all the newspapers.
We also watched TV all the time. I learned most of the North American culture from TV because my parents did not know much of it either.
I did not make a documentary until I was thirty. Then as I said before, I went to Korea to discover myself. I travelled to Malaysia and Vietnam as well and the whole trip consisted of about two to three months. My trip was very random, accidental and self-authored. I came back and got a job at the community radio station as a news director in the CBRN radio. That’s how I entered the media business. Due to its frequent interest regarding the social activists, CBRN was a revolutionary station back then. They talked about poverty, anti-psychiatry, environmental activism, etc. It was a big learning experience for me and opened my eyes in political activism, organizations and ideas. I was paid $500 a week and worked six/seven days a week. I had many exciting opportunities to get different perspectives by interviewing actors on stories across the world. Then after working in CKLN (CKLN- Ryerson University Community Radio) for two/three years, I wanted to work in documentaries. At this point, I was too old to go to school, had no money or time. However, I got really lucky as my friend from the radio station introduced me to a TV producer and she ended up offering me a job in a small production company when I was 29. After working in a production company for a year, I learned a lot as a production assistant working in a variety of TV shows. I was also able to gain senior production credit and director credit while working. My producer gave me, a novice with no formal trai
ning or education, an incredible opportunity to direct a show. After, I wanted to do my own film so I approached the National Film Board of Canada and produced my first documentary. I had a huge amount of luck on my way to becoming a documentary director. Recipe for my success was being hungry and knowing myself well – from my travels in my twenties – and having luck. Things come up in unexpected forms such as being introduced to the documentary industry by a friend.
Were there any challenges until now in the documentary industry?
I’ve been having a lot of challenges. Biggest challenges have always been in the title and its stereotype as an artist, filmmaker, which is quite intimidating. We have titles in the film industry, but they’re not clearly defined. Maintaining the core principles of the titles is a big challenge. People, who are used to being taught with a manual, are less likely to be creative. In order to make a good film, self-reflection is required to define an honest voice. Never forget what drew you in the first place, because what drew me is trying to tell story that is supposed to be silent. When I am filming, I wait for the moment that is completely authentic to kick-in.
Filming is a problem in terms of access. No one ever wants me there with a camera. For Tiger Spirit, it took two years for me to get to North Korea to shoot. Even when I was there, I was constantly monitored, as they know that cameras can be a very powerful tool.
My first film, El Contrato, was about farmers in Ontario regarding the employment system. Many lived in poor conditions. For example, there was a lack of health care system and pension plans. They were treated without valuing any legal rights. Canadians don’t want to do 3D (Dirty, Dangerous, and Demeaning) work. Farms require labour force and in this case, Mexican people, who were treated as machines lacking any form of protection, were the labourers.
The National Board of Canada (NFB) produced this film and after its released, employers in Leamington sued me and NFB to intimidate us into shutting down the documentary as a legal tactic. I was really demoralized. But later we released it and farmers did not sue us back.
What advice can you give to someone who is pursuing a similar career as yourself?
I think that there are Korean-Canadian youths who want to work in media production and they need to value the fact that Korean-Canadian identity gives them that extra plus that they are not aware of as opposed to seeing it as a detriment. Their Korean identities complicate the story. In other words, make it more interesting and unexpected. When they come from a perspective that people are not aware of, people get more interested in hearing about it. So, if there are KCs who want to work in the film industry, they need to really look at themselves as being rich in content and start excavating their own story from that.
I personally want to do a story about Hae-Nyu, a diver in Jae-Joo Island. That to me is a mind-blowing story for example.
Many young Korean youths are pressured to become dentists, doctors and lawyers, but I strongly encourage youths to listen carefully how strong that need to express is. Oftentimes, I think a storyteller forms the culture. There have been an increasing number of Korean-Canadian youths who actually listen to their personal intent, which is a desire to become a writer, a documentary film maker or a poet. These are the people who reflect back to their parents and our children on expressing who we are. It may not be as materially rewarding, but has a life rewarding aspect. In our community, there are not many story tellers, though there are some in the Korean American society. Korean-Canadians are still struggling due to conservatism rooted in our parents. Youths are guilty on making decisions on what they want to do for their parents’ sacrifices. We need to value the work of artists but overcoming it has more to do with personal challenges.
What do you would think about the Korean Canadian community compared to before?
It is interesting that one of my assistant editors is a Korean Canadian who came to Canada when he was 14. He was technically proficient and bilingual, good for filming Tiger Spirit. Now he is in demand for many non-Korean production houses in Toronto.
That flexibility is great. I think that groups such as yours make me really feel great - Encouraging young Korean Canadians who are interested in the idea of mentoring other Korean Canadians, but also building a sense of community beyond church. Beyond the business association, we had limited expressions of identity as a community so we’re on the right track.
What is one characteristic that you think that every leader must have?
If a group of people decide to believe in an idea that you have and work with you, in my case, I guess that means you’re a leader. Two characteristics actually come to my mind: 1) To really value everyone else’s strengths, and recognize that they make you stronger. Whenever I work with groups of people, I work with an editor, a shooter, a sound person and I see the value in their respective strengths. So recognizing the strengths of everybody and really emphasizing that is a smart leadership thing to do. When you’re directing a film, you’re just trying to figure out how do you do this and that. In my opinion, directors are people who don’t yell or force things. People feel confident when their strengths are acknowledged. So if you’re second guessing the person you work with, they can feel it. You don’t even have to say it. They’ll start feeling insecure and start making mistakes. I am also always open to learning new things from my team so I try to maintain a healthy learning environment. I think the other thing is 2) resilience. You always need to be able to get back on your feet after being put down. If you believe it, it will happen.
What do you think are the biggest challenges or obstacles that young Korean Canadian leaders face? Also, what resources can they use?
The film and television industry is really competitive. Funding for it is decreasing every year. It’s an incredibly difficult industry to break into and make a living off of. Expect it to be really difficult. Expect most people in the beginning to not believe in you. I hope that doesn’t sound too negative, but people won’t give you any space until later. Right now, I’m working in non-fiction for the first time. I’ve done 10 years in documentary and now I’m going to work in sitcom/drama. If you’re going to try to work in film and television, I would really encourage people to have a strong sense of why they are there. This reason will sustain them through the lean periods because they may work as assistants, transcribers, and whatever other jobs that are not well paid or contract to contract. It’s important to never lose your vision through the tough time. So never forget what your film is, what your main project is.
It’s a lot easier these days to do film than ever before in terms of technology. Anyone can buy a mini video camera. So there is nothing that is stopping you if you want to become a filmmaker. You can do it yourself and practice over and over again. I think that’s a really important concept. I would also leave as many doors and bridges open as possible. Let’s say you thought you wanted to work in radio, but you can’t get a job in radio - I would then explore every avenue of media. You may end up working in online media because that’s huge. Everyone is excited about cell phone films, internet films, and things like that. So I would say, be ready to end up working in unexpected places for your goal.
Also do your research. Go online, find out what production companies exist, who the broadcasters are, who the commission executives are, and have this knowledge.
One more question. You were talking about your own experience when you started your career relatively late and you had a vague period for many years in your 20s. There are actually a lot of people out there who are in their 20s or even older, not knowing what they want to do, especially because they were brought here by their family. Even though they’re all grown up and have graduated from universities or other institutions, they don’t know what to do. What can you tell them who are in similar situations?
I would tell them to live life. Get out of the house, go travel, do things that you would not normally do. Place yourself out of your comfort zone so that you see the world and reflect on yourself because we’re constantly reinventing ourselves. To me, the start of my adventure was going to Korea. It totally woke me up to a whole different world. I put myself through all kinds of experiences. I didn’t know I would end up making documentaries, but it clicked for me and I had the hunger for it. The world is phenomenally exciting and there are so many things you can do that would be just be fulfilling.
Final advice for the aspiring potentials?
Do something that you find exciting. To do something you like, you would do this unpaid, with passion. Keep yourself happy and challenged.
Can you tell us about screening of “Tiger Spirit”?
Released in 2008 and premiered at Hot Docs and Reel Asian Film Festival. Main audience was main stream Canadians. 4 screenings at Korean churches for seniors, but they get depressed because they do not want to be reminded of the things they went through. Every young Korean Canadian who has seen it has gotten excited and felt that it has been educational. The city councilor in North York, John Filion, for Yonge & Sheppard, wants to organize a screening In North York.
What is your plan for the upcoming film?
M*A*S*H is a TV show, which is very popular and well-known. Most people are familiar with the show. But what was the real M*A*S*H like? A MASH was a mobile army surgical hospital that was set up by the American army during the Korean War and it was sort of like an innovation in military medicine. During battle, the MASH was a tent that was within 30 minutes drive away from the battle front. The MASHs followed the battles. So I’m talking to the doctors, nurses, and soldiers who went to MASH hospitals in Korea. They’re all American. I’m also trying to find Koreans such as ones who served as house servants and house boys and women who worked around the MASH tents to talk to, but so far I haven’t been successful. That’s the documentary I’m working on right now it will broadcast on History Television in the fall of 2010.
What is your plan for the upcoming sitcom?
Remember when I said I feel like I’m starting new again? You saw “Hogtown”, I spent about two years around the City Hall because I really love municipal politics. I’m kind of a political geek that way. So I always had this idea that it can be the basis for a great TV show. This year, I approached a production company. The idea is a 60 year old white woman, who becomes the accidental mayor of a city, such as Hamilton. She has to figure out how to run the city. The show is called “She’s The Mayor”, by a production company that does drama and they agreed to work with me on the idea. We took it to a TV station and we got funding so we begin shooting in March. We’re writing stories now. It’s pretty exciting. I’ve always wanted to work in fiction and this is my first opportunity. Again, it’s all about luck, timing, and the people you know. We’re doing 13 episodes, half hours, a full season. It will be up in September, very exciting. And it will be on Vision Television.
About Min Sook Lee
Min Sook Lee is an award winning documentary filmmaker. Her film Tiger Spirit garnered a Gemini Award for Best Social/Political Documentary in 2009. Her doc ‘Hogtown: The Politics of Policing’ was honoured with the Best Feature-length Canadian Documentary award at the 2005 Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival. Her short docu-poems, Borderless and Sedition have played around the world from Beirut to Berlin. Her first feature, El Contrato was nominated for a Gemini and she was also presented with the Cesar E. Chavez Black Eagle Award for El Contrato’s impact on the rights of migrant workers. Min Sook premiered her latest documentary ‘My Toxic Baby’ at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. In 2010 she will release the documentary “Badge of Pride”, a look at gay cops in Canada. Min Sook will also see the release of her first dramedy series She’s the Mayor on Vision TV in 2010.
Interview Date : Nov. 22, 2009
Interviewers: Jooseok Lee, Yongsub Eric Shin, Sarah Yoon
Photographer: Gerald Law
Editors: Phil Kim, Hyungbin Kim, Chris Heebum Lee, Woojin Ahn, Hyunwoo Lim
The views expressed in the interviews are not necessarily reflective of JoinTheLeaders's opinion.
NOTE: Our Toronto chapter plans to present Tiger Spirit screening event for all young generation in Toronto in March 2010. Please Stay tuned!