Open City Documentary Festival 2022 marked the first year of an ongoing series, commissioning a filmmaker previously screened at the festival to create the trailer for the following edition. London-based Korean artist Jooeyon Lee, whose short film Back to Back (2020) was screened at the 2021 festival, sat down with Open City’s Marketing Manager Laverne Caprice to discuss her thoughts, goals and shooting process for the 2022 trailer.
Laverne Caprice: You shot the trailer at night only. Why was this important to you?
Jooyeon Lee: I grew up as a big city girl. I was born in Busan and grew up in Seoul, which is the biggest city in South Korea. I spent my late teens to early 20’s there and Seoul was politically and artistically very turbulent at the time. In the night-time you encountered things like teenage shelters, PC rooms, hardcore punk groups or gay clubs… you saw what a city really had to offer. I think the night and the nightlife resides in my core memory quite heavily.
But still, Seoul is a very industrial city. There is a lot of grey and concrete, you don’t really see lots of forests or urban nature happening. I went to an art school in Seoul and the campus building had been owned by the national security services back in the 1970s and 1980s, when the country was still under heavy dictatorship. The campus was originally a government building, and they had preserved forest and urban nature very well. It always kind of fascinated me when I first went university and whenever I go around the city – I would explore urban natures. I would just look at how there’s a hybrid between the green forests and concrete and how it would work was really interesting to me. So that’s what I imagined would be really fun when I moved to London and then later when shooting this trailer.
I thought “It’s gonna be really fun when I move to London” because London has amazing green spaces, but when I first got here lots of people were advising me not to go to the park or forest in the middle of the night because it’s not safe. I still really enjoy doing so, at night there is a battleground for nocturnal animals like foxes and rats as well as urban dwellers. It makes you think, maybe I am not the strongest one to survive in a certain field – a place I shouldn’t be alone at night. It was a great opportunity to kind of reclaim or explore more as I made this film project.
LC: The themes of childhood and nostalgia in the form of chants and games are apparent. How did you come up with this concept for the project?
JL: How children play games, sing songs and chant is certainly fascinating to me. It’s universal, every generation, everyone from every country, they all have similar memories of playing similar games. Using them as a metaphor, you can bring audiences into a very communal experience of understanding.
LC: Did you do any research in bringing this trailer into fruition other than using your own childhood memories?
JL: When I was commissioned by Open City Documentary Festival to complete this project, I had this thinking that I wanted to focus on personal anecdotes or opinions about nonfiction filmmaking itself, instead of bringing a clear subject to the table, which is often the trendy thing to do. I thought about how Open City selects its titles, it doesn’t really concentrate on certain themes of the films, there’s a varied way to express or narrate lots of things. That’s one thing I really had to consider. I already had some of the ideas on nonfiction filmmaking, like small stories or anecdotes for a long time, I didn’t really want to think about the final product outcome, so I suggested multiple ideas. I then narrowed it down to three film productions in the end.
LC: As the making of the trailer led to other filmed projects, can you tell us a little bit more about this? Was it always planned?
JL: There were some anecdotes and drawings from myself all centred around a lot of research about children’s songs and chants. I made a picture proposal to select some of the performers to work together. Overall, there were six performers and the biggest production for this film was supposed to be them playing the game Wink Murder and it doesn’t really work if it’s less than five people. I tried to be very selective about who I chose as it’s hard to represent the diversity that reflects London, not only in terms of identity, race or sex but also it had to be diverse in terms of their own personalities. I got lots of applications and did a short interview with each applicant, I found six people who I thought would work well together. They were all comfortable talking about their pandemic. I also selected people who were all involved with creative work in different ways.
One of the projects I shot alongside the trailer, Toad Dance, is a bit more of a black comedy. It stems from a personal anecdote about making a nonfiction film. I think with lots of documentary films, filmmakers have similar concerns especially because I think documentary filmmaking is inevitably destined to be unethical. Lots of people are really interested in showing other people’s lives or community but there are lots of cases where people’s lives are inevitably changed either in a positive or negative way. This is something I’ve also experienced too; I always have to question – is this completely ethical? Is this really worth doing? This is why I loved the concept of an anecdote about the city, small animals and insecurity in the street.
I’ve had this fixation with small animals from a young age and the concept of a dance game I saw in a workshop. For Toad Dance, I asked two of the performers to improvise sudden dance moves, the idea was that they would slowly steal or copy and repeat the other dancers’ moves. Eventually, they ended up dancing in unison and that became the dance for the song. I think people have amazing methods of copying one other or stealing from each other. Overall, the footage became really playful, and it was a lovely atmosphere too. I think this was probably the easiest one to make.
Whispering Saucers has a bit more mystery, it comes from a personal memory of encountering whispering saucers when I was young. Whispering saucers are some kind of sonic experiment with parabolic antennas. These antennas have certain curves, and they bounce around a really small sound too, far away. However, due to the sounds being so small if you stand in certain position, and face each other, you can hear the sound and it’s quite fascinating!
I asked the main actor to walk around a green space and make their own noises, they could talk about personal stories, or make animal sounds, or inaudible whispers. However, when the two actors face each other, they would have to mimic each other. It’s like some sort of power game. There was a moment where they were talking really loudly, but not to each other and then a random dog started barking at us aggressively, and one of the actors starting barking at the dog. The dog then replied, and it became almost like a discussion. The main point of the project is that loud and clear communication is not essential to understanding each other.
Blinkers is probably the longest and is the most featured in the festival trailer. It takes place with six performers wandering around the same park all together, but they must play the game Wink Murder. I didn’t really know about the game before coming to UK! It’s where you wander around as you’re talking to each other and when you get winked at secretly, you “die”. People then have to find the murderer, whilst the murderer keeps their identity concealed. I asked the actors to play the game beforehand, but on the night of the shoot, I told just one actor to imagine instead that we all went to sleep two years ago and never really woke up. When we eventually wake up, everything that’s happened recently has taken place without us, the world has changed, people have died etc. I told them that they were now the only survivors in the world, and to talk and role-play their experience of how they would react and find each other – everyone else had to improvise. It was kind of reflective of the pandemic experience.
I also think people winking at each other is an interesting gesture, because it’s a gesture of inviting someone in, it can be flirtatious, it can be sexual. It’s so bold but subtle at the same time.
LC: There are also several moments where we’re given the impression that the trailer is playful, but then there’s a sense of seriousness in it. Was that intentional?
JL: I don’t think that it’s intentional, most of the time I really hate serious films or really well managed films. In cinema, how they set the mood and tones – heavily derives from the sound materials they use, like background music or dialogue. So, I use no background music at all, just the city ambience. It gives more of a live atmosphere.
LC: Once you’d decided on the performers and the shooting locations, how did you work together during the shoot? Was it successful?
JL: I think overall the six performers worked very well together. I was really satisfied with everyone I chose and some of them I barely knew! It was a great way to get to know each other.
There were a lot of technical problems as I never use commercial type cameras and lightnings. I used the minimum requirements for the project like caddie camcorders and flashlights, this was so the performers could use their own lighting. I also didn’t hire audio technicians because to hire them alongside more audio gear of course would have meant it using up a lot more budget. I did really want it to be a small and intimate group.
LC: How did this impact the group?
It was hard to pick up who was speaking in the mics, whether it was me or one of the actors. Some of them broke too. We had to sacrifice some technical detail for the sake of the integrity of the production, but I think that’s inevitable in some ways.
LC: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything else?
JL: I recently completed my MA degree this summer, and I made a film called Fortune Teller for my graduation show. I’m currently looking for ways to screen it to wider audiences. It’s a research film about flight attendants in South Korea and cosmic radiation exposure.
In South Korea lots of people have to work very long extensive hours, especially flight attendants. South Korea has one of the biggest airports in East Asia so a lot of employees in the aviation industry are constantly working. Flight attendants are suffering from breast cancer or leukaemia and other serious diseases. The film mirrors or compares this very contemporary setting to one of the most historic industrial cases which happened in America a century ago coined Radium Girls. When radium was first invented people didn’t know how dangerous exposure to it was, so they put radium in everything. Lots of factory girls used to touch and lick the paints to make the brush thinner. They would eventually get serious diseases and lose their jobs. I was thinking, well this is sort of universal even though there is a century apart in both cases. This kind of situation will happen again and again in the future too. In this society where capitalism works in every moment of our life, you’re basically selling your identity and health for more money every day.
Jooyeon Lee (b.1993, South Korea) documents and visually composes the political influence of loneliness, isolation, technological progress and labour precarity through moving image, drawings, publications and performance. Her works has been introduced in Seoul Independent Film Festival, Seoul International ALT Cinema & Media Festival, Open City Documentary Festival, Indieground, Korean Cultural Centre, etc.
You can watch the full Open City Documentary Festival trailer here.
Jooyeon’s other works: