By Han Sang-hee
Feature length movies can touch the heart, while documentaries capture life in its grim reality. Documentary film director Christine Choy's work offers both: the ringing of emotion that can be found in the everyday lives of ordinary people.
The Korea Times met the 55-year-old director at her hotel in southern Seoul, where she was staying during her visit to chair the jury at the Educational Broadcasting System's (EBS) International Documentary Festival which ended last Sunday.
"Festivals like this help (the documentary market) a great deal. The audience needs to be developed. Once you cultivate a quality group of audience, this group can cultivate others", said Choy.
Choy, whose father is Korean, grew up in China and Korea, before moving to the United States to study architecture, and eventually becoming a documentary filmmaker. Former chairwoman of the Graduate Film and Television Department at New York University, she was nominated for an Academy Award in 1989 for Best Documentary with "Who Killed Vincent Chin". She is currently a professor at the university.
Working in the industry for more than 30 years, Choy said the "challenge" was still the most important factor in deciding topics and ideas.
"I like all topics: the least I know, the better it is. I recently finished a film about a Jewish poet who died in 1962. He had four children but none of them remember him because they were too young, and since he died so long ago, his colleagues were all dead. It was extremely challenging but I loved it because first of all, I hate poetry and so I had to learn what his poems were all about, and secondly I had to figure out how I was going to make this dead person alive. It was, indeed, a challenge", she said.
Despite the recognition of documentaries around the world, Korea still has a long way to go to appreciate these films, and this rather sad ignorance happened way back in history, according to Choy.
"When I made "Cinema Korea", a documentary about Korean history in film, I couldn't find any material before 1945. All destroyed. No one appreciated the fact that you can use it as a frame of reference, like a mirror", she said.
Choy shared some of the dilemmas many directors go through when filming a documentary. Because they are based on reality, unexpected situations frequently take place, to the filmmaker's dismay.
"There was a film about this island outside of Shanghai and the government decided to make it an eco-city. The groundbreaking had already started, while the infrastructure was studied by a British company with a Mexican architect. But the project is due in 2040. So you have a first act, which is great, and the second act about the designing process and vision. But the third actů I probably won't be around or too old to make the film, so what do you do? I think the third act is a dream. The future has a lot to do with the present and the present comes from the past, so even though you don't have the ending, the filmmaker can imagine what could happen", she advised.
How does the filmmaker define a "good" documentary?
"You can't have a general category. Each film has to be looked upon with its own special eyes. For instance, if a film came from Iran, knowing the fact that Iran is very conservative and a Muslim country, and deals with teenage love, you will look at it from a difference perspective. I really look at the films individually; you cannot compare one film to the other", said Choy.
However, a good work has to have a "good way of story telling, for a great story remains the same regardless of cultural backgrounds", and that is what Choy hopes many fans will discover in documentaries.
Documentary film director