Bora Lee-Kil is a writer and filmmaker who believes that being born to and raised by deaf parents has given her the best gift of storytelling. She dropped out of school at the age of sixteen and traveled South East Asia for eight months. This experience inspired her first film, “Road Schooler” (2008), which also resulted in a book, “Road is School” (2009). Following this, she studied filmmaking at the Korea National University of Arts. “Glittering Hands” (2014) is an award-winning documentary based on her stories of growing up moving back and forth between two worlds – one of silence and one of sounds. She also published the essay book “Glittering Hands” in 2015 and won the Korea Emerging Women Culture Awards that same year. Her last film, “A War of Memories” (2018), won the jury’s special mention at the Busan International Film Festival. She recently graduated from the MA program at the Netherlands Film Academy, and won a Young Artsupport Amsterdam (YAA) Award with the project “Our Bodies.”
Tara Karajica talks to Bora Lee-Kil, one of this year’s Berlinale Talents, about her career, women in film and her next project.
How did you get into film? Why did you choose that particular field?
Bora Lee-Kil: In a short sentence, I have loved documentary film and program a lot since I was young. I grew up watching documentaries, which were my window to the world instead of my deaf parents.
When you dropped out of school at age 16, you traveled across South East Asia for eight months. This experience then inspired your first film, Road Schooler, which also resulted in a book called Road is School. What lessons did this particular school teach you? How did it shape your life and career?
B.L.-K.: At that time, I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker or an activist for an NGO organization. However, it was so difficult to imagine exactly what they do due to the limits of South Korea’s education system that solely focuses on college placement tests. Travelling across South East Asia for eight months was so precious and fruitful and I realized that it’s worth more than solving mathematic questions mechanically. This led to the making of my first documentary film Road-Schooler that showed how I learned in solidarity with others on the road. Making the documentary film was so difficult and tough, but after having made it, I had fun interacting with the audience. That’s why I decide to study Film at University.
You believe that being born to and raised by deaf parents has given you the best gift of storytelling. Can you elaborate on that thought?
B.L.-K.: My first language and mother tongue are Korean Sign Languages. I learned sign language from my parents and spoken language from the world. But growing up under deaf in Korea was not easy. There was no recognition that sign language was a language, and there was no sign language interpretation service. Since I was four years old, I had to interpret everything. As a result, I was exposed to both worlds. With the eyes of the deaf, I saw the hearing world, and with the eyes of the hearing, I saw the world of the deaf. It made me a storyteller. I knew that people didn’t know. It was so much fun to talk and share about it. I believe that it affected my sensitivity.
In that sense, Glittering Hands is a documentary based on your stories of growing up moving back and forth between two worlds – one of silence and one of sound. Can you expand on that?
B.L.-K.: This film is a documentary film from Coda (Children of Deaf Adults)’s point of view that has grown up between the world of the deaf and the world of the hearing. I am a hearing, but I am also a deaf. But in the media, I have seen that the deaf have always been portrayed as lacking and poor. But my mom and dad weren’t like that. Instead of lips, they spoke, loved, and grieved with hands and expressions. I wanted to show their sparkling world. So the title is “Glittering Hands.” The Korean title is “Glittering Applause,” which means that the deaf welcome each other by turning their hands to create a sparkling applause, rather than clapping hands. I wanted to welcome the hearing people with a shout of applause into the world of the deaf.
Can you talk about your latest feature documentary, A War of Memories, where you explore the memories of those who have survived the Vietnam War and where what cannot become “history,” belongs to a “woman,” a “blind,” and a “deaf”?
B.L.-K.: The title of the film has been changed to “Untold.” After the first release at the Busan International Film Festival in 2018, I edited it and renamed it. The film was released in a Korean theater on the 27th of February. This film shows the memory of the massacre of civilians by Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War from a different perspective. The three main characters in this film are women, the blind and the deaf. War has always been remembered and portrayed in the eyes of men. My grandfather was a Vietnam War veteran. After my grandfather passed away, I asked my grandmother about the Vietnam War and she answered like this: “War? I do not know that. Men like that better know.” It was strange. Of course, my grandmother did not go to war, but she raised children and took care of the household in Korea on behalf of her husband. Why can’t Grandma say a word about war? The question made me decide to make the film Untold in the eyes of a non-male.
Your work is deeply personal. How do you choose your projects and the subjects of your films? What inspires you to tap into your life stories?
B.L.-K.: Untold is a film that starts with my grandmother and grandfather, but when you watch a film, there are no personal layers at all. The film Road-Schoolers and Glittering Hands was based on my experience and narration. I wondered if I’d make a film without narration and personal experience, and I made Untold like that.
I’m developing Our Bodies, a feature film about women’s bodies and reproduction rights. “I had an abortion. My mother had abortions. My grandmother had abortions, too. Why can we not share our experiences?” The film starts with this question. I always start my filmmaking process with a question. The process of making a film is a journey to find the answer. Since I was born, I have grown up differently from others. Of course, I believe that everyone is different, but it was not acceptable in the monoculture of South Korean society. So I talked, wrote, and made films. I still do.
There has been a lot of talk about the situation of women in the film industry these past two years. What is your opinion on the matter? How is it in South Korea?
B.L.-K.: It’s the same in South Korea. I think it’s a good change and the industry should be changed more and more. I majored in Documentary Film at University and there was always a high percentage of female students, but no full-time female professors. And it’s still the same. I don’t want to talk simply by dividing men and women only. We need a variety of films. Films that deal with various issues from different perspectives are needed.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker? And your film by a female filmmaker?
B.L.-K.: Agnès Varda. Women Reply (1975) and One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977) are the reference films of my new project.
What is your next project?
B.L.-K.: As I said earlier, Our Bodies is a film about the how the prohibition of abortion and the impossibility of talking about it with each other that has affected three generations of women in my family, myself included. The film shows how socio-political history is inscribed in the movements of our body.
Photo credit: Berlinale Talents.