“It Has To Be Your Story”: Embracing Creative Futures With Filmmaker Ok-Hee Jeong
By: Hailey Mah
This summer, I traded my home of Vancouver, Canada for an exchange term in Berlin. While studying abroad, I definitely had the future in mind. As I inch toward the end of my Media Studies degree, I find myself transitioning from somebody who studies art and film and new media, to somebody who will be working in these artistic fields. This period of change is a little scary: I know I want a creative career, but the details of what it will look like are unclear. Personally, I’m most interested in media analysis. However, the blurred lines between consumer and creator nowadays mean that I often end up making things too: visual art, video work, and creative writing.
I’m having a hard time settling on what area of the creative landscape is the right environment for me – and if that area will even accept me. When I set out on my exchange term, I secretly hoped that being surrounded by creativity in Berlin would help illuminate the uncertain future. I decided to become a sponge, hoping that if I took in as much art, film, and culture as I could, I could find a direction to focus on. In April, I attended a documentary screening and Q&A of Sewol at an arts space in Berlin. I was excited to soak up new perspectives and support local artists while abroad. Sewol zeroes in on the 2014 sinking of a passenger ferry carrying students in South Korea, which cost 304 lives. The documentary follows the preventable circumstances of the incident, and the subsequent activism by the parents of the victims to hold the government accountable. Sewol is a call for justice and a galvanizing call for accountability to institutional power. It is intense, captivating, and driven by the vision of its director: Berlin-based artist Ok-Hee Jeong.
During the screening’s Q&A, I was blown away by Ok-Hee’s personal dedication to directing, producing, and distributing the documentary – which happens to be her first film. She was incredibly receptive to the audience and open about her process. Hearing her speak so passionately about her work, I knew I needed to learn more.
“Everything Is Connected”
Some weeks afterward, Ok-Hee and I sat down for a sprawling conversation about Sewol, her oeuvre of work, and creative passion. Born in Korea and raised in Germany, she has worked across creative fields for decades: painting, playwriting,short story writing, journalism, and most recently, filmmaking. Ok-Hee traverses from one form of art-making to another, depending on the stories she wishes to tell. However, there is a thread tying her work together. “I’m really interested in stories of social-political subjects,” she says. Her work explores aspects of identity, belonging, and social change – often reflecting her identity as a woman connected to multiple cultures.
During my conversation with Ok-Hee, she was extremely candid about these influences and her pursuits. I expressed my awe at how she has tackled so many mediums. “Creative people are creative in every area,” she said in response. “They are not creative in just one thing. When I wrote a play, it was helpful that I had painted. Because if you paint, you need a composition. The composition is very meaningful [with plays], and also with short stories, and articles and films… everything is connected.”
When Ok-Hee found out about the Sewol tragedy, she felt compelled to document the event’s repercussions to a larger audience. And she knew that the stories she wanted to share, of the victims’ parents, would be served best through film. “I could write about it,” she admitted, “but it’s not enough…I can transport my ideas better in a visual medium.” And so she decided to create a documentary on the tragedy. When it comes to pursing projects, “if I have the feeling [that the story is] very important, then I’m really convinced…I have to do it,” she says.
And so despite having virtually no filmmaking experience, Ok-Hee reached out to her subjects, enlisted a director, Suna Lim, for technical assistance, and flew to South Korea to start shooting. She had few resources on hand, but felt propelled to create through sheer passion for the story – and the film is incredibly inspiring as a result. Her experience reminded me how powerful the process of learning through doing can be.
Watching Sewol, it’s clear that Ok-Hee’s past experiences writing about politicized subjects and under-represented narratives were essential to the documentary. Her ability to showcase the humanity of her subjects is clear across her work, from her plays to her journalism. Seeing how Ok-Hee’s refusal to stick to a single medium has enhanced, rather than hindered, her creative career is refreshing. If she doesn’t feel pressured to commit to a single creative path, I don’t have to either.
Embracing The Unknown Future
Ok-Hee’s creative passion is infectious. During our conversation, I admitted a lot of my creative fears to Ok-Hee: I was unsure of which direction to pursue after graduation, and didn’t have a clear path in mind. She emphasized that as people we are constantly developing—and to welcome these changes. “You are another person in comparison to one year ago. And two years later, you will be another person with another point of view,” she said.
She argued that as we change, so does our outlook on life and what we need to do for fulfillment. “It is an unnatural process to have one profession and to work until you die,” she continued, embracing the idea of a multidisciplinary career. “I think the most important thing is [to do] what is important for oneself. If you are convinced to do it, then I think it is possible to do everything.” She ultimately encouraged me to stay steadfast in pursuing creative projects. “If you want to have an artistic life, and you say, “This is my decision,” then it’s the right decision,” she said.
Hearing those words lifted a weight from my shoulders I didn’t even realize I was carrying. Her encouragement helped me reconsider the unknown future as a place for possibility and evolution. Whether my future endeavors include film, art, writing, or anything in-between is unknowable, but exciting.
During the remainder of my time abroad in Germany, I’ve started to reconsider the way I look at creativity: embracing the connections between multidisciplinary experiences, instead of feeling torn between their influences. In the time since we’ve spoken, I keep coming back to one thing Ok-Hee said about making art: “The whole world is writing, there are so many stories…but it has to be your story.”
photo creds: film stills- Ok-Hee Jeong
Hailey Mah is a current media student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada (unceded Coast Salish territory). She’s excited about how new technologies and DIY methods can amplify underrepresented voices.