Moments of imperfect harmony: an interview with Catherine Lee

Though the title of Catherine Lee’s documentary short 9 at 38 (2017) is cleverly and enticingly succinct, a possible subtitle could be ‘Orchestral and political maneuvers in the light of day.’ ‘Maneuver’ is the operative word here, with its multiple meanings of ‘carefully planned action,’ ‘expertly executed movement,’ and, in its plural form, ‘military exercise.’ All three meanings of the word penetratingly coalesce in Lee’s film, which details the road to the realisation of a joint concert between South Korean musicians and a North Korean choir. Firstly, behind the ‘carefully planned action’ of making this concert happen — and having the imagination, hope, and will of dreaming of it to begin with — and at the film’s center is musician Hyung-Joon Won. Then, the ‘expertly executed movement’ refers to not only Won as a violinist and the sociopolitical ways in which he is making use of the power of music but also his conducting of musicians as well as Lee and her crew’s thoughtful representation of this potentially monumental event for the two Koreas and the world. Finally, the idea of ‘military exercise’ is always already a part of the conversation when it comes to the issue of the two Koreas, but Won and Lee’s film prompt an altogether different type of exercising of the military in pursuit of breaking through the division, however temporarily.

Lee’s own leap of faith in getting into filmmaking and making her documentary is fittingly aligned with Won’s extended leap of faith in conceiving of this concert. In the interview that follows, Lee relates how her own project that is 9 at 38 came about and the kind of documentary films that she is interested in making. As current events unfold relating to the intertwined future of North and South Korea as we speak, the timeliness and purposefulness of both Won’s and Lee’s work will only increase.

How did you find out about Hyung-Joon Won’s story?

By seeing an article in a magazine! But I come across a dozen articles a day. Why did I grab onto this story?

I have spent a decade in humanitarian aid work and everywhere, without exception, I saw that hostility between groups was underlying the direst social problems; the lack of human connection which allows the “us versus them” mentality to perpetuate. If two people from opposing sides can relate, that makes all the difference between war and peace. This drove me to a decision in summer 2015 to make the leap from full-time employment at a premiere international organization to independent documentary making. Two weeks after that decision, I came across the article about the joint concert dream of Hyung-Joon Won. He inspired me: a fellow Korean with a divided family and a fellow musician. Three weeks later, I flew myself and a lean crew of two from America to Korea to film this man I’d never met.

The film presents footage that spans a week, between rehearsals and the actual journey to the DMZ. Did you have only a week to shoot or decided to structure your film with a week-long timeline?

Remember that I only learned about this story three weeks before the August 15th (Independence Day) concert date. Arriving a week in advance was as much practical as intentional. You take your real life constraints and work with them without looking back.

On a related note, the lm’s structure of going back in time to one week before the slated concert provides a nice dramatic tension. How did you decide on it? Or was it an obvious choice with the footage you shot?

This is an idea that was there from early on. The very first version of the movie – which was fifty-something minutes – was completely chronological. But I always wanted this film to feel almost like an action movie. So we used a classic action movie strategy – starting at the critical suspenseful scene. I’m not a believer in documentaries which feel like…well…documentaries. The more nonfiction can entertain like Hollywood, the more memorable and the more impactful. I hope to play a role in transforming the stereotype of documentaries away from didactic and dry.

Deciding where one’s documentary film ends, when the story is vérité, can be a wrenching decision. Your characters continue to live their lives after you put down the camera and you never know when you may want to run back to site and pick it up again. It’s ultimately a risk you must take to determine, ‘Okay, I’m going to make my story and this is the scope, this is the climax, the denouement.’ Then you stick to that decision once you are in the editing room. It can be impossibly difficult to let go of content, whether it’s existing footage you are cutting out or new happenings, and I have even shed tears over some of these losses. Looking back, I am blessed to feel we made all the right decisions. Call it confirmation bias, if you wish!

How did you get Won to open up on camera?

Won, a Juilliard trained musician, is a nonstop energizer bunny. Like many driven high achievers, he doesn’t always stop to process or express his emotions. I believe it is a critical skill of a documentary maker – and actually, of a friend, which inevitably becomes the case – to allow your converser to enter that space of addressing fears, sacrifices, and uncertainties, even if uncomfortable. I credit my previous work background for this skill as a specialist in project impact evaluation. I would, and still do, visit villages and listen for hours with a translator.

The sequence at the DMZ entry/checkpoint is understandably the crux of the film. At one point, you chose to match the unfolding of that sequence with an audio portion of Wons interviews, the contents of which are deeply personal, further enhancing the affective quality of that sequence. What was the process like for you to find this juxtaposition?

The juxtaposition, without giving too much away, works because ultimately what is important at the DMZ entry scene is not what was being said, not the logistics and happenings, but the internal experience of our protagonist. I remember, for the hours we were there, seeing and hearing the desperation in him, and my heart ached – not for the concert, not for my country mired in this tragic paralysis where just playing music is not possible, but for this one man. The analogy he makes during this section with respect to harmonizing is heartbreaking.

Was the scene always envisioned this way? No. We made so many versions prior. The reveal was placed over different parts of the movie. I think the creative process is to try different things and reiterate, but always learning, and when something works, you just know it. I’m known to jump out of my seat and get viscerally excited when this happens. The best thing a director can do, by the way, is surround oneself with incredible collaborators and create an environment where everyone feels empowered to give their input. This scene is a baby of all of us.

In your lm, one sees the difficulties that presented themselves to Won’s project. What difficulties did you experience, if any, in the making of the film, especially as it is your directorial debut?

If any – you mean, choose one of a thousand! I must start by saying I couldn’t have wished for more with my first movie: incredible team, incredible story, and even uncannily current global happenings. And, I discovered I love doing this. I’ll be making films for life. The difficult times were when we would run out of funds (aka all the time), or I would be pulling my third all-nighter in a row, and I would ask myself, ‘Why am I making this movie at such cost? What is the point of an effort such as Won’s?/ After all, people have been telling him for years, ‘A joint concert isn’t going to change anything…’

I had to remind myself that if a single young North Korean musician and a South Korean counterpart can interact, come to view each other as “us” as opposed to “them,” then a domino effect begins. Interactions need not be grand to shake the prejudices taught by school and society. Music is an especially meaningful interaction because it requires listening to each other, adjusting, and achieving that moment of perfect harmony. When enough minds and hearts are influenced, that is “social change” by its very definition. And that is what makes this a universal story, and what kept all of us going for two and a half years.