Ajung Kim on becoming a documentary-filmmaker

by Samantha Bacchus McLeod


Ajung Kim is a passionate wanderer, and dreamer who loves learning, exploring, observing and documenting human stories and the beauties of cultures, all with a camera.

“The importance of female filmmakers is about encouraging diversity in our cinemas so that not only will women create the kind of films that more accurately portray female characters, but so will everyone else.”  The Importance of Female Filmmakers – The Spread

Ajung’s visual storytelling emphasizes humanity in all its diversity. Ajung has travelled to over 20 countries in the last decade:

Ajung Kim

Below is my recent Q and A with Ajung Kim – Travel and documentary film-maker and photographer.

I know you are currently working a nine-to-five, while working on various personal projects related to your passion for people and places. What else have you been up to lately?

My job currently is very different from the art world, it is very calm and low key. Personally, I am still writing a lot.

What are you writing about?

I am going to be 30 years old this year, turning 30 means a lot to me, there are a lot of mental and emotional shit and I feel like I want to look back at the last decade and write about the milestones, the best and the worst and I am now going through those memories to see how I did. Did I do right, what have I learnt? And of course, the journeys I have experienced.

How old were you when you took off travelling on your own?

My first solo trip was a backpacking trip I took when I was seventeen. I have basically been a traveller since then.

How do you decide on the places you want to go?

My gut tells me, seriously I never research where I want to go, some countries just speak to me, call me to them.

What do you find when you travelled to these different places?

Absolute amazement. I have never regretted my decisions, never. Travel is life’s lessons. I have met and became friends with great people. I think of travelling as my past and my future, as my literal journey through life.

Tell me about a bad-case scenario you experienced in your travels.

I have had severe food poisoning and ended up in the hospital for seven days. It was close to Varanasi. The whole group ate street food at this stall and strangely enough I was the only one who got sick.

Another time I lost my camera in Nepal, that was terrifying but guess what? I got it back. It was an adventure but I found it again after a week.

What was one of the big highlights of the last decade?

Well, I think the first 3 years were huge, I think that was the big chunk of change. I did a lot of things during those 3 years. I worked for an NGO 24/7 without vacation for 3 years straight, I was on call, on the spot for people, calls to me would save lives, change lives and it was exhilarating and rewarding.

Tell me about a bit about a few of the big trips.

In Japan, I stayed in a quiet residential area. One must be absolutely quiet after 6pm. The neighbourhood was a clean, formatted place where everything was designed to be almost isometric. I felt completely isolated there and yet I truly admired the law and order of it all.

China, where we were on the bus travelling and out the window I could see across the narrow river into North Korea. It was a foggy day but the distance was so short that I could see North Koreans working in fields. I felt like if I called out to them they would hear me and wave back to me. It was so close to me, and yet so far away.

Thailand was, back then, was so much fun and dynamic. I still remember having Pad Thai from a street vendor and it was fresh and steamy and so good. I also went with friends who wanted to get a Thai massage. Although I was only 18 at the time, I was saddened by what society does to women. I really saw the divide between people based on where they come from, whether it is a country or the economics of their life. It hit me hard then, like why do I get to travel and buy whatever I wanted when this young girl, younger than myself, has to massage random strangers for a living? I did not get a massage but I still felt awful that our lives were so different.

Do you question your privilege often?

Almost every day. I think I was born to question life. I remember being ten years old and my mom was driving us somewhere and I was looking out the window at beggars on the street. I kept asking why are people struggling like that, how can I help them? So, yes from as long as I can remember I have questioned my privilege.

I know you completed a documentary recently, tell me about that documentary?

My most current documentary is Yo Soy Coreana! it translates to I am Korean. It is about Koreans to Mexico migration and history. This was a very spontaneous project. I actually knew nothing about that branch of the Korean diaspora.

How did you find out about it?

Well, I was in Mexico on vacation and I did a bit photography with local studios and medias, and while I was there one of the editors told me that I really need to check out this Korean museum in Merida. So, I was shocked, I did not expect to see Korean people here in such a small village, I mean Merida is a capital city in a small province but still it was very unexpected. So, it turns out that was my first introduction to Korean immigrants in Mexico.

The next day I visited the small museum, it was tiny, not even a museum just photos, old and stained, scraps of newspaper clippings, and aged handwritten notes. There I met Grandmama, her name is Jenny and she is a third-generation Korean-Mexican woman. She shared stories of her grandmother, she had a very special bond with her grandmother and it was from her she learnt about Korea’s history and culture and she learnt a smattering of Korean words. The oral history told to her were the only things she knew about Korea.

How did that make you feel?

It was quite an emotional encounter, like I did not know my Korean ancestors were deported to Mexico. They were indentured servants, which really was legal slavery. This was during the war. They were sold The American Dream in Mexico. What they hoped to achieve, a new life, new beginnings were not what they found. When they arrived, their passports were taken away, they did not have the option to return, they were enslaved, based on a contract, for 3 years. Obviously, they were stuck. It was very painful for me to learn about this. I mean these were big parts of our history that was left out of the history books, we were never taught about what happened to so many of our people, so once I encountered Jenny I wanted to be her voice, I wanted to share with other cultures about our Korean history and their descendants in Mexico. I mean there were at least 4 generations of people who do not speak Korean anymore, most of their children moved away for a better life. Jenny wanted to keep this history alive in Mexico, so she was actually looking for someone to document this part of the history so that is when I decided to make this film to document and showcase it, and who knows maybe someone will step in and continue her work.

I mean we all know about the separation between the North and the South and as time went on it became two different countries but really it is one people. So, how often have you encountered your history away from Korea?

This is the very first time I was confronted with an alive history. The funny part was I was invited to a farm to do a photo shoot for a local magazine. They insisted that I checked out this new farm resort that has a reputation for being really fancy. I decided to take a day trip to the farm for the photo shoot. There I saw an old man in white coveralls and the farmer’s hat and all, you know, the whole get-up? A farmer.

This Mexican farmer approached me and spoke to me in Spanish, he welcomed me and asked me where I was from. I said I am Coreano and he said right away, “Oh my grandma is Korean!”. So, all of this became so relevant to everything I was experiencing.

Ajung Kim

Is the documentary finished and available for public viewing?

It is, but not ready for marketing. It was selected by the Korean International Expat Film Festival this year and it was screened in Seoul a few months ago. It went really well. It is a pretty emotional story so the audience were moved by it, and that is good news for any film maker.

What’s next with this documentary?

I am planning a few Korean events around the film to raise awareness of the Korean diaspora in Mexico. My planned date for the full release is set for our Korean Independence Day on March 1st 2019.

Ajung Kim

Stay tuned friends, this documentary will be thought provoking and beautiful, as I have found all of Ajung’s work to be.

To see some of her work go here.

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