Interview by Alexandra Hidalgo
When did you realize that you wanted to be a filmmaker and what attracted you to film?
It’s funny. I still don’t think of myself as a filmmaker so much as an artist in general. I prefer the term artist because I think subconsciously it allows me more room for creative play and to explore different means of expression that is not just confined to documentary filmmaking. I love making all sorts of stuff and film happens to be one of my mediums.
For me, creativity keeps the madness at bay. I have to make stuff or I will lose my shit. It is the one thing that keeps me centered, focused, and in touch with the heart of my life. But I never set out to be an artist; my career path was born out of necessity. I think choices in life often don’t make sense…until you look back and see a pattern emerge.
To me, that shows there really is a higher order to life. Though at the time life may feel like pure chaos, all you can do is try to make the best choices and trust everything will work out.
I was really lost in college. Completely overwhelmed and intimidated by being at Harvard, surrounded by such intensely smart people, I felt like a fish out of water. I have a short attention span and could not keep my butt in a seat long enough to listen to lectures, read books, write papers…I barely did coursework for any of my classes. At Harvard, you have to decide on a major at the end of your freshman year, and second semester of my freshman year everything was so up in the air, I would have majored in anything. I even looked at Sanskrit and Indian Studies. My freshman proctor—whom I should profusely thank—knew I had previously taken a number of photography classes and recommended I check out an intermediate class offered in VES (Harvard fancy-talk for “art”). I attended every session of that class and it was the only one I obsessively worked at. That was a clear sign to me.
Even then it never occurred to me to study documentary filmmaking. Really, it was the bargain hunter inside that drew me to the medium. Harvard has a very nice art program where they pay for all of your materials; they even give you money for your thesis project. When I was deciding which track to go down, I seriously thought: “Film is much more expensive than photography. I should study film because I’ll get my money’s worth out of my education. It’s a better deal.” Really. That’s why I chose film.
Once I found film, I stayed with it. No matter how chaotic or nonsensical the rest of my life was in college, things made sense in my film classes. I discovered film is a language I understand. It’s like, when I watch a movie, I feel like someone is talking to me and I hear what they’re saying.
The other piece is my mom. She committed suicide when I was seven. Experiencing the loss of someone through suicide shifts the way you view life. It became crystal clear to me that I needed to make sure I truly followed my heart. I always told myself: Do what you want to do, Rosylyn. Never, ever get to a place in your life where you are so unhappy you feel like taking it away.
So, I had no choice. I wasn’t good at anything else in college and I just could not bear to study something I didn’t enjoy. It was “Do what you love or Die.” Melodramatic, I know. But I’m Korean and melodrama is an essential amino acid to my diet.
How did you come up with the idea of making Same Same, but Different?
Again, it was organically born out of necessity.
First off, I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do after college, so I applied for a grant. And that is one of the reasons why you go to a snooty college like Harvard; their resources are unparalleled. The parameters of the Gardner fellowship were simple: go abroad and have an experience that will rock your world. You could apply to make a film, but you were under no obligation to finish it. What was more important was that you had some sort of loose structure within which to have a very unstructured international experience. They just wanted you to get out in the world and experience life. I was very fortunate to receive one of those grants.
Second, my dad was so angry with me when I told him I was going to be an artist and not the lawyer/Supreme Court justice as he’d always dreamt I’d be, I knew he would probably never talk to me again. So I applied to make a movie about him because I wanted the opportunity to mend the huge rift between us.
Same Same, which deals with your relationship with your father, is a very personal story, as is Oma Rhee, your film about your mother’s suicide. Why do you think you’re drawn to these personal narratives, and how do you navigate the personal (and often painful) with the artistic?
One of my most formative art classes was a photography class I took in college—formative in the sense that it was highly traumatic, took years to recover from creatively, and totally made me a better photographer.
First day of class, the teacher said: What are you obsessed with? Follow that. And as much as I would like to punch that woman someday for teaching one of the most emotionally upsetting art classes ever, her clear line of reasoning led me to make my first film, Oma Rhee. I went home, journaled for a while, and what came forth was the realization that I was obsessed with my mother and the circumstances of her death. My family stifles emotion and so when my mom passed away, we never spoke of her. This is how repressive our upbringing was: my mom died when I was seven, but I didn’t know she committed suicide until I was fourteen. No one knew I didn’t know, we just never talked about it and I was too young at seven to understand that “mom took pills and alcohol” meant she killed herself.
I think my upbringing explains much of the art I created in my twenties. Because we never talked about anything or expressed any of our true feelings, I probably overcompensated and went overboard in the other direction of expressing everything. I had a burning desire to hear everything that had gone unsaid for way too long. I also needed to express exactly what I felt and not censor it in any way; I just wanted to experience unfiltered truth (or at least what felt like truth to me).
So again we come back to necessity. I never set out to make personal films; it just ended up that my first films were very personal because that’s what came out first. Creative expression is part and parcel with who I am; I need to so I can be a healthy, happy, functioning human being. To this day I am still overwhelmed with an intense desire to express myself, and it just has to come out whether it be through my films, my Nigerian dance class, or singing in the shower. I didn’t make Same Same with the expectation it would be the summer blockbuster of 2009 (though of course recognition and big profits are very nice), I made it because I had to.
In terms of navigation…
I believe creative expression heals. It does not always have to heal nor does it always have to be about addressing pain, but I do think unearthing emotions and aspects of your psyche go hand in hand with the creative process. I’ve always felt that your soul will not rest if something needs to be expressed, and repression of that urge causes greater damage than experiencing what we perceive to be criticism of our artwork.
I think where it becomes tricky is when you share your art with the world. To survive as an artist, you have to be careful not to mistake creative expression with personal validation. It’ll kill you if you do. Sharing is about connection and about the giving of yourself and your gifts to an audience. It is one of the most beautiful things an artist can do.
I am moved by forces greater than me to connect with people through my art, but I cannot control how people will react nor how many. That gets into the realm of marketing and entertainment wizards, whose artistic craft I equally respect. As an artist, all you can do is make your stuff, put it out there, let go, and move on.
I understand my art is not for everyone, nor really should it be, since it is so personal. Just having made it is enough for me. To have a few people enjoy it and share the experience makes it that much more special.
How has your family reacted to finding themselves as the subject of your art?
With much kindness, trepidation, and support.
Oma Rhee was my first film, so it was new for all of us. When I did the initial interviews for the film, my sisters were bewildered and angry with me for asking questions about our mom. They didn’t understand why I wanted to know, and really, I didn’t know what I was doing. All I knew was that I loved them, I had an intense desire to reach out and open the door to honest conversation, and I thought it would help us.
About a month into making Oma Rhee, I showed a rough cut to two of my sisters and my brother-in-law. I will remember this moment forever: the four of us sitting around a Steenbeck watching the film, laughing and crying…and them finally “getting” it. The healing and release that happened in that moment was intense. It was like, by opening up the lines of communication through a creative process, my sisters and I realized just how traumatic our mother’s death was and that we all shared this experience: we did not live with this pain alone. And by acknowledging what happened, we could finally release it. The other revelation was: they understood me. All the things I wasn’t able to express I could finally do so in a film. That’s when I knew film was one of my languages.
I had a similar experience when I traveled with my dad in South Korea to make Same Same. Up to that point, he was furious and could not understand why I wanted to be an artist. Making the film gave us the space to finally get to know each other and heal the divide between us. Near the end of the trip, after two weeks of intense communication and revelations mediated by a creative process, he said to me: “So this is why you make movies.” That moment of clear connection was one of the best moments of my life. All the hard work, the tears, the fighting…for him to finally understand that my art comes from a place of love and a deep need to connect with the world…it was all worth it.
So, my family understands I am different from them and they love it. They are proud of me for following my heart and respect the hard work I’ve done in order to follow my path. And, I think they are just as relieved as I am that I’ve moved onto different subject matter that no longer involves our family.
Why did you choose to show us the scene we have here to represent the film to the agnès films community?
The movie is divided into five chapters, or “barriers.” This scene starts the second section, which has some of my favorite footage I shot on Super 8 and 16mm on my cross country trip from Washington DC to LA. The scene is about my perspective on America before I traveled to South Korea for the first time. It also showcases the excellent work of the gentleman who composed the music for Same Same, but Different, Woody Pak .
How different is the Rosylyn Rhee we see and hear on screen to Rosylyn Rhee when the cameras are off? Do you ever have difficulties reconciling the two?
Great question. And one that probably gets to the core of questions many folks have about Same Same, but Different.
I just don’t know. I do know I am a control freak, and as much as I try to be as honest as possible in my life and art, truth is subjective. I also know every day I learn new lessons.
Originally, I tried to edit Same Same without my voice in it at all. Keep in mind it took me eight years to make this film start to finish (Oma Rhee took 3 months); after principal photography was done in year one, the next few years were spent futzing around lost in the great unknown of the creative process. One year was spent convinced I would never finish the film and that I would just chalk it up to a “great post-collegiate experience,” another year was spent aimlessly looking at random bits of footage, another sitting at my computer alternating between writing furiously about what this film was all about to typing bits of nonsensical thoughts, another involved miring my poor friends in my every thought about the film…I really didn’t figure out how to edit Same Same until year five or six. It wasn’t until that point that I realized the film would not make sense without my voice in it…then that became a whole other neurotic, energy-consuming process.
Aside from realizing my voice needed to pull together and create the spine of Same Same, I also felt much guilt from having put my sisters out there so vulnerably in Oma Rhee. I thought it only fair to put myself out there as I did them. So I tried to treat my monologues in the film as I do when I interview subjects: tell your story exactly how you feel and let them be. Don’t try to polish them up or censor yourself. Just speak. I also wanted to prevent myself from obsessively filming and re-filming them, which would take them farther away from a documentary feel. As a result, my monologues in Same Same were written, shot, and edited slap dash; I think they are the most clunky part of the film. It also probably stems from having been totally freaked out about doing something like that in a film and from being flat-out tired and just wanting to finish the fucker.
Reconciliation has been the hardest part. To put yourself out there with the intention of “OK this is who I am and I will accept myself as is” is terrifying. And when people react negatively to them, it feels like a pure rejection of you. Ouch. That hurts. But, oh well. Life goes on. Then that becomes part of the process too. I have to take in all the feedback painful and/or wonderful as it is, honestly look at myself, then decide what lessons to take away.
But after a few years of living with the finished film and dealing with all the shit that comes up with putting yourself out there, I’m in a different space. The creative process never gets easier, but now it does feel like anything is possible in a wide open field of creative potential. If I survived this, trying new stuff doesn’t feel as scary because I know I will make it through.
The other big lesson I learned is empathy for my subjects. It is so easy to be the “objective” filmmaker behind the camera observing others through your intense gaze. Being in front of the camera sucks. Behind the camera is a position of great power. It takes deep trust for a subject to allow you to film them, and my hope is to handle that as respectfully as possible. Though I’ve tried my best, I’m not sure I always have. I’ve certainly learned hard lessons with all my art and each new project I work on brings opportunities for humbling growing pains.
You are a one-woman crew, having filmed Same Same on your own. Can you talk about your process? What are the difficulties and the advantages of that approach?
Again, working as a one-woman crew was unintentionally born out of necessity. That was how the craft was taught to me in college, and I’ve rarely been able to afford extra help ever since.
Whereas the University of Southern California (USC) system (a great and highly-pragmatic one that feeds professionals into Hollywood) breaks up the filmmaking process into specialties (DP, Writer, Director, etc.), Harvard’s documentary filmmaking program is more of an auteur one. They teach you how to make a film from start to finish (pre-production to shooting to editing to output) and expect you to do it solo. It’s more of a “suck it up, buddy, figure out how to do it on your own” way of teaching.
Advantages and disadvantages…
I like understanding the craft holistically. It’s a more intimate relationship with the craft and I think learning documentary filmmaking at its core will help me implement documentaries that require larger crews, more consistently vision-wise.
I also think being a solo shooter makes a big difference when capturing footage for my style of documentary filmmaking (as opposed to a nature doc, for example). Introducing a camera to an environment is disruptive enough as is; you’re always trying to balance allowing a scene to unfold organically, with nailing your shot. The more camera crew you introduce into that scenario, the harder it is. It’s difficult for subjects to feel naturally themselves when there are a bunch of folks observing them microscopically. So, how can you be invisible and also get what you want without impacting the scene unnaturally? I’m still learning. I think that’s one of the big interesting questions in documentary filmmaking.
Unfortunately, doing everything on your own does aggravate control-freak tendencies. I’ve had my “I’m a wild stallion…no one can cage this wild horse!” struggles, which have been humorous at best. My twenties were devoted to making projects completely on my own and making sure I found my voice. I am grateful for that. But now, what excites me most is collaboration. Collaboration is a whole other art unto itself; learning how to craft a creative vision collectively is so challenging but incredibly rewarding. I really do believe the sum is greater than the parts.
You make a living as a documentary filmmaker. Can you talk about your work? What are the benefits and drawbacks of this profession?
Have no illusions about the romantic life of an artist: 85% of my life is unglamorous tedium, stress, and one-foot-in-front-of-the-other hard work. Being an artist is not easy, but it’s the only profession I can sustainably make a living at. But the 15% leftover at the end of the day is what it’s all about; those pure moments of creative play are what I live for.
If I weren’t an artist, my second occupation of choice would be drug addict. No joke. Drugs are fun and relatively cheap if you don’t mind decimating your life and those of your loved ones. But a creative high is the greatest high for me, which is why I sacrifice doing drugs to make art.
As much as people piss me off sometimes, I love and am fascinated by the human condition. It’s beautiful. To have the privilege of getting to know people and to discover their stories…having those real moments unfold in front of your camera…it’s an honor. It’s like someone is revealing their soul to you. It’s so special.
The doc videos I make for a living—that’s my craft. I am happy to be in service to a client and the higher good of their work. If they want things a different way, I don’t see it as a power struggle of, “No! I am the auteur, peon!” They are paying me money. Whatever they need. Cool with me. I will always put my foot down if I feel like there is a stronger creative choice, but for the most part, I trust the client to tell me what they need. The flipside is that I make space for my own art so I can create exactly what I want, the way I want to. Having that freedom and creative play in the 15% of my life, makes my work with clients joyous and fun.
It’s freakin’ stressful and you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. So much of making documentary films is embracing the unknown. You go out with a hunch that something will be an interesting story, and the journey constantly shifts as you shoot more. You cannot control an unfolding story nor anticipate everything. Life happens and you pray to catch it on film. Then you have to sort through your boatload of footage to pull out the essential pieces and craft a narrative. Editing is challenging and all about strong choices. Your story can go in so many different directions, and it is intimidating when you have too many possibilities to choose from, especially when you’re not sure which way to go.
Another piece is just about maintaining your life logistically as an artist. Yes, I make a living as an artist, but it is a modest living, and it involves taking care of everything myself as a freelancer…billing, returning phone calls, pounding the pavement to get work, meeting clients, negotiating prices…all of that you learn as you go. But I choose this path so I can have more creative freedom overall. What folks do in Hollywood is no better or worse, it’s just different and you figure out what is most important to you when you set out as an artist.
Ultimately, it’s about making do with what you have, which I think gets to the core of being an artist (and really, everybody is an artist in their respective field whether they’re a scientist, athlete, or painter): make lemons out of lemonade, find creative solutions in the face of minimal resources, necessity as the mother of invention, think outside of the box after you figure out what that box is. And, have fun with it.
A number of creative projects excite me now. My portfolio website is the best way to check out what I’m doing.
Right now, I’m a burnt out on documentaries, but if I decide to invest my energy there, I am most psyched about projects that do not involve my family.
I’ve enjoyed dancing with The Nigerian Talking Drum Ensemble the past six years and am gearing up for our performance in December. The lessons I’ve learned from that troupe have changed me for the better. It would take a novel to try and articulate them, but to name a few: the importance of expression for expression’s sake whether or not one person witnesses it or a million, how to be present and in touch with your body physically, which can be tough in a world of emails, texts, websites, and other such intangible essentials of modern-day life, and how to share and love in the same space with an incredibly diverse, dynamic community of women all doing the same dance.
I’m having fun collaborating on experimental music videos with old friends from college, and goofing around on random projects like Wifebeater.
The next big thing on my To Do list is to get A Drunk Email Is Forever up and running. It’s definitely the neglected crop in my garden.
What sort of advice do you have for women (and men) wanting to start their journey as filmmakers?
White men are funny. Please know I love them. White men (and women) have slept in my bed and they’re lovely. But what amazes me is how much of our population does not see that most mainstream American media thoroughly explores the white male psyche: Indiana Jones, Little Miss Sunshine, Austin Powers, Sideways, Indecent Proposal, 500 Days of Summer, Harry Potter, Birth of a Nation…
I love all those movies. I don’t feel oppressed by them as much as I find more of the same type of movies uninteresting. It always cracks me up when this is brought up in dialogue, and you hear the war cry of “reverse racism!” I think it freaks some people out when they realize white men are no longer the center of the universe, and that many other varied, full, vibrant ways-of-being/living/thinking/loving exist outside of the narrow slice represented in mainstream movies. It’s also a bummer, though, because it perpetuates the zero-sum idea that voicing one experience automatically negates others. Just because there are resources (film festivals, grants, etc.) focused on developing cinematic voices outside of the straight-white-male paradigm, doesn’t mean there should be less of the straight-white man (which has been so generously covered in mainstream movies), just more that are not the straight-white man. Ideally, all voices can co-exist in mainstream media.
The corollary is since there is such a rich cinematic straight-white-man tradition, much of the thinking out there about how films should be constructed, is from that perspective. So if you are trying to find and develop your own voice, remember that the box you may be trying to think outside of is an entrenched, dusty, cement box that has existed for way too long. Find creative colleagues who are able to think outside of that box as well and can play with your ideas.
Ultimately, we live in a society that devalues the feminine experience. Not females necessarily, but feminine qualities that exist in men as well. Feminine qualities are often seen as “weak,” “irrelevant,” “complicated,” “nagging.” We also live in a society that does not acknowledge all the many colorful voices out there. It is sad that some folks still think empowerment of non-white people equals reverse racism. Or, they think Slumdog Millionaire was “enough, right?”
So my advice for women starting out on this journey is: Value Yourself. Know you have a right to a seat at the table just like everyone else. Seek out a community that nurtures your unique voice. It feels so good when fellow human beings understand and seek to empower your vision, rather than try to change and conform your art to their paradigm so they feel less uncomfortable.
• Value what everyone else brings to the table.
Finding your own voice doesn’t mean no one else gets to speak. Deep down, we all want respect.
• The creative process is uncomfortable. It never gets easier, but it is always rewarding. Take it one step at a time.
• Documentary filmmaking is a process. Embrace the unknown. I thank Omowale, my dance teacher in The Nigerian Talking Drum Ensemble, for kindly reminding me of this as I wrestled with finishing Same Same. I would think, “Screw the process! I just want this to be done!” Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way.
• Be patient with men.
Even when they make another crack about the size of your camera, or fast-talk you with their technical know-how (which I’ve often found inaccurate when shopping for camera equipment), that’s just their awkward way to try and make conversation. They don’t understand women are not as intimidated by size and knowledge issues as men are.
• If you are a person of color, be patient with white people. Sometimes, they just don’t know any better.
One of my kind, talented photographer friends was taking head shots of me and kept telling me to “Open your eyes bigger!” He wasn’t trying to oppress me…he just didn’t know any better. But yes, it was still frustrating as hell.
What kinds of stories would you like to see told through film and video?
I just don’t want to feel like I’ve been duped.
Mainstream movies seem to be more like entertaining advertising these days. I squirm when I feel like trailers are out to trick me into giving money to another asinine film rather than products like Avatar that provide great storytelling entertainment and/or a cool artistic experience. I love Avatar. It’s one of the few movies I spent my hard-earned money to go see last year, and it had delightful white men in it!
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