Interview: Jason Lee, Director of Letters from Pyongyang

In advance of the screening this afternoon – 1:00 pm at AGO’s Jackman Hall – I was able to do an email interview with Jason Lee, director of the documentary, Letter from Pyongyang. Keep reading for his answers.

I was also lucky enough to catch an advance screening of it and I was captivated by the documentary that manages to tell an intensely personal story that will also resonate with many Koreans whose families were – and still are – divided by the Korean war. Don’t miss the chance to catch it at Reel Asian if you are in Toronto this afternoon. 

1. Can you briefly introduce yourself? 

Hi, my name is Jason Lee. I am a filmmaker from Montréal. ‘Letters from Pyongyang’ is my first independent documentary film. I got my B.A. from Concordia University where I dabbled in Communication Studies and Computation Arts.

2. What made you choose to be a filmmaker?

It was kind of like Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat – I never really chose to be a filmmaker, it kind of chose me. I’ve always enjoyed the visual arts, design, music, and sound – film was the natural medium to combine everything I enjoyed into a neat little package.

3. What was the inspiration for Letters from Pyongyang?

‘Letters from Pyongyang’ was inspired by the letters written by a long lost uncle living in North Korea whom my family had never met. I wanted to highlight the tragic situation of divided Korean families – many of whom are now dying of old age simply waiting for a reunion.

4. How long did it take you to plan and film it? Were any of the scenes scripted?

It was about two years of planning before I started filming and another three to finish the film.

Nothing was scripted, it’s a documentary.

5. What were some of the challenges you faced in making the documentary? What did you learn from this project? (both the positives and negatives)

The biggest challenge was not giving up and constantly adapting to any situation despite all the odds against this film being made. I learned that while at times many things may appear to be improbable that nothing is impossible.

6. What was the most memorable thing that happened during the filming of Letters from Pyongyang? Any other memorable things happened during the shoot?

The best part of filming Letters from Pyongyang was that I was able to travel all over the Korean peninsula from the most southern point in Jeju all the way to Pyongyang. It was an exceptional and special experience to have had with my dad.

7. Did filming – and visiting – North Korea alter your plan for the documentary or its direction? What effect did it have on the film – and on you?

The point of the film was to film and visit our relatives in North Korea in order to tie together our family story, so it only helped make the film what it is rather than alter its direction.

8. I liked how you started the film by not only introducing your family but giving some historical context so that even those people unfamiliar with Korean history can understand it. Is there anything you’d like to tell people who are planning on seeing Letters from Pyongyang?

Some people may have the misconception that Letters from Pyongyang is a film about North Korea. It is first and foremost a film about my family. I am not an undercover journalist nor am I interested in making sensationalist exposé pieces. I was clear from the beginning that I wanted to highlight the tragic situation faced by the many Korean families who are still separated and that time is running out for many of them who are dying of old age.

9. Which film festivals have you screened at and which ones are coming up?

PAST Festivals:

  • RIDM – Montreal Int’l Documentary Film Festival (Montreal, Canada)
  • Aljazeera Int’l Documentary Film Festival (Doha, Qatar) – Jury Golden Award for Best Short Film
  • Palm Springs Int’l ShortFest (Palm Springs, California) – Jury Award for Best Documentary
  • Off-Courts Trouville Film Festival (Trouville-sur-mer, France)
  • Sapporo Int’l Short Film Festival (Sapporo, Japan)
  • Between the Lines Special Event at the Frontline Club (London UK)
  • Korean American Film Festival New York (New York City, USA)

Upcoming Festivals:

  • Official Selection 2013 Reel Asian International Film Festival – Art Gallery of Ontario – Jackman Hall – Toronto, Ontario, November 6, 1:00PM (Tickets)
  • Official Selection 2013 California Independent Film Festival – Orinda Theatre – November 8, 3:30 PM (Tickets)
  • Official Selection 2013 St. Louis International Film Festival – Tivoli Theatre – November 19th, 5:00 PM – FREE SCREENING

10. And finally, how can people get in touch with you?

Don’t forget to catch the documentary at Reel Asian this afternoon at 1pm!

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday – this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it’s taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I’m the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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