The Making of 'I Am Sun Mu' – an Interview with Director Adam Sjoberg
Filmmaker and photographer Adam Sjoberg has been working for the last two and a half years on a new documentary about our friend and renowned resettled North Korean artist Sun Mu. The film, titled I Am Sun Mu, follows Sun Mu as he prepares a new exhibition. We have known Adam for a while—he directed Danny From North Korea—but he is also known for previous works such as Shake the Dust and many other internationally-recognized films.
Check out our interview below with Adam on his most recent documentary.
When did you begin working on I Am Sun Mu?
Justin Wheeler introduced me to Sun Mu in January of 2013. We had dinner and discussed the possibility of doing a documentary about his life and work. Because Sun Mu can’t show his face and has to go to great lengths to protect his identity, he was understandably careful about getting involved in a feature film about his life. However, because of the long-term relationship he’s built with LiNK, and my approach to filmmaking, he decided it was a good partnership. I’m super thankful that he said yes. A year after we initially met, he was invited to China to show his work in a solo exhibition. This was an unprecedented event for a North Korean artist—and a bold decision on the part of the curator. I decided this was a perfect opportunity to film him and use the exhibit as a narrative arc with which to tell the rest of his story.
What was your favorite part of the process?
The whole filming process has been a joy to work on. I loved some of the quieter moments of filming it when it would just be Sun Mu and me in his studio. He would be painting or working away on a piece, and I would just be a “fly on the wall” filming. That collaborative effort was really inspiring. I’ve also loved working with a team of creatives that are so talented. Mariana Blanco, our editor, has been crucial to getting the film completed. Ryan Wehner has been making some beautiful animations of Sun Mu’s work that really help bring Sun Mu’s back-story to life. And composer Joel P. West has been working on a unique and beautiful thematic score to round out the film. I love working as a team with people that inspire me.
What are some cool things you learned while you filmed?
There has been so many things that I’ve learned. I already had a basic knowledge of the history of the Korean peninsula, but I’ve learned even more about it—as well as the nuances of the Kim’s rule and influence on every portion of North Korean life. Hearing Sun Mu discuss his life in North Korea, as well as his process of “un-brainwashing” after he left was fascinating. But most importantly, developing a friendship with Sun Mu over the last two years has helped me see past the politics and stereotypes surrounding the issue. Part of the beauty of Sun Mu’s paintings is that they don’t sit in any particular political space. He misses his homeland and longs for a more idealized, free North Korea. His work reflects his torn heart: He is not North Korean or South Korean. He’s simply Korean, which is why so many of his paintings focus on the idea of reunification, which is often seen as an archaic solution to the future of the two Koreas. But I don’t think he’s painting about reunification because he’s sure it will happen, only that he hopes it will.
What was most challenging for you with creating the documentary?
I don’t want to give too much away, but things did not go as expected at Sun Mu’s exhibit. That created safety and security challenges. Beyond that, making a feature-length film is a tough job. There are so many parts of Sun Mu’s life that I wish I could tell. The more I filmed him, the more I wanted to include. But in the end, you have to decide what stories push the overall narrative forward and keep people interested. It was tough to lose some scenes, but there are always DVD extras!
Do you have a favorite scene?
Can I pick two? My favorite is probably a scene where Sun Mu describes the day he escaped. It’s mostly a compilation of his paintings brought to life with animation. Afterwards, Sun Mu sings a song while playing the guitar that he used to play back in North Korea. Another favorite scene is of Sun Mu painting with his daughters. He then describes a couple of paintings he made of them—one of which is of his oldest daughter holding a “letter that cannot be sent” to her grandmother. It’s powerful.
Why do you create documentaries? Why did you choose to do this one in particular?
I create documentaries because I have a passion for helping people tell their stories. I love the genre because of how it opens up people’s eyes to the world. Ever since getting involved with Liberty in North Korea back in 2010, I’ve been interested in this issue. The crisis in North Korea is often overlooked, thought of only in terms of its politics, and is considered by many to be a complicated “cause” in which to be involved. I’ve worked with commercial brands that haven’t wanted to align themselves with LiNK because their manufacturing is in China. But it’s one of the greatest ongoing tragedies in the world today—and I’m proud to be associated even a little bit with what LiNK is fearlessly doing.
Who is this documentary for?
Hopefully it’s for everyone. We tried to make a film that is not just about North Korea, but about a person—an artist. It has a little bit of everything in it: a few laughs, a story of family, a story of escape, and a story of an artist trying to make it. Sun Mu is a very poetic person, and so I think people will be drawn in by his narrative.
What are you most excited for people to see in the documentary?
The climax of the film is pretty exciting and emotional, but I’m most excited for people just to get to know Sun Mu.
Why should people watch this? Why is this important?
As I’ve mentioned above, this is an issue that is often only seen in the media regarding it’s politics, or else in comedies or shock-docs. I want people to see a more human side: to not walk away thinking of the Kims, but of the many people in North Korea who live under one of the most oppressive regime in the world. Not just of their plight, but of their potential.
Where/when can someone see the documentary?
There will be a website up soon with more information. It will take some time before we secure international and domestic distribution. Stay tuned to what LiNK is doing. We’ll try to keep everyone in the loop once it’s out for the world to see!
UPDATE: January 2017! We're excited to announce that I Am Sun Mu is now available on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and other video on demand platforms! Watch it, rate it, and share!
Want some of Sun Mu's art for your home? Check out the Sun Mu canvas prints on the LiNK Shop!
Foreign Media in North Korea - How Kpop is Challenging the Regime
Movies, TV shows, and music hold power. They’re a way for us to connect through common experiences, reckon with different sides of humanity, and revel in the beauty of being here at all. They transport us to another time and place- perhaps one of our imaginations- and most importantly, allow us to dream and imagine a limitless future.
In recent years, South Korean media and entertainment has gained international recognition. People like Hyun Bin and Son Yejin, the stars of popular Korean drama Crash Landing on You, have become household names, while Parasite swept the 2020 Academy Awards and music from K-pop groups like BTS are charting globally.
Meanwhile, just across the border, North Korea remains one of the most closed societies in the world. Yet even in the “hermit kingdom,” foreign media is accelerating empowerment of the people and change within the country!
Forced Isolation and the Regime’s Information Monopoly
The North Korean government has maintained power for decades through a system of imposed isolation, relentless indoctrination, and brutal repression. A complete monopoly on information and ideas within the country has been key- outside media threatens to challenge the legitimacy of their propaganda, and by extension, their control.
The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea reported an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as well as of the rights to freedom of speech, opinion, expression, and association.
The regime employs a range of strategies to enforce information control:
- Restricting movement across borders and within the country
- Random house searches
- Severe punishment, including public executions, to deter foreign media consumption and sharing
- Sophisticated digital surveillance
- Jamming phone signals and locating users through signal triangulation
- Mobile OS file signature system that only permits government-approved apps and files
The Spread of Foreign Media
Despite this isolation and unparalleled internal restrictions, the North Korean people have been quietly changing their country from within, including through foreign media access. Through market activity and the movement of people and goods across the Chinese border, they have forced the gradual opening up of their society. Movies and music are smuggled into the country on USBs, SD and MicroSD cards, and small portable media players, offering illicit access to information from the outside world.
With lights off and windows shuttered, North Koreans will watch foreign media despite the risks. If all else fails, bribes are a way for people to reduce punishment if caught. Most North Korean police and government officials rely on bribes to survive, and some defectors complain that they are actually the biggest consumers of foreign media because they confiscate so much.
Information Technology in North Korea
Within North Korea, a broad range of information technologies are available, although they should be registered with authorities. Laptops and computers officially run on a government operating system, Red Star OS, while the North Korean intranet, Kwangmyong, is air-gapped from the internet and heavily surveilled. However, in practice, many North Koreans have non-networked devices used for games, editing software, watching videos, and to copy, delete and transfer media on removable devices.
Mobile phones are also common with approximately 6 million on the North Korean network, meaning roughly 1 in 4 people have one. These North Korean phones generally cannot make international calls and the operating system limits users to approved state media (programs have been developed to bypass this security). On the other hand, smuggled Chinese phones can be used in border regions on the Chinese network. These have been crucial for staying in touch with relatives who have escaped or defected, who often send back money and information from the outside world.
Radios are the only channel of foreign media and news available real-time across the country. While they should officially be registered and fixed to North Korean stations, it is relatively easy to tamper with radio sets to pick up foreign broadcasts. In border regions, some TVs can also pick up live programming from South Korea and China. Traditionally, TVs were connected to DVD players, but newer LCD televisions also have direct USB input ports.
How Foreign Media Changes Perceptions
Among foreign media, entertainment from South Korea is particularly attractive, produced in the same base language by people with the same ancestry. They contain glimpses of rich and free realities just across the border. In comparison, domestic North Korean media seems old-fashioned and disingenuous, designed to reinforce the regime’s ideologies.
As North Koreans learn more about life, freedom and prosperity in the outside world, and their own relative poverty, the regime’s ideology and control are eroded.
“At first you see the cars, apartment buildings, and markets and you think it must be a movie set. But the more you watch, there’s no way it can be just a set. If you watch one or two [movies] it always raises these doubts, and if you keep watching you know for sure. You realize how well South Koreans and other foreigners live.”
- Danbi, escaped North Korea in 2011
Empowered by foreign media, North Koreans are exploring their creativity and potential through everyday acts of resistance- using South Korean slang, copying fashion styles, and sharing pop culture references. In this culture war, Kim Jong-un has called for crackdowns on "unsavory, individualistic, anti-socialist behavior" among young people to restrict freedom of expression.
Foreign media also facilitates shared acts of resistance. People will swap USB devices with trusted friends and neighbors, increasing confidence in one another through a symmetrical transaction. Some people may also watch and discuss movies and shows together, increasing the media’s subversive influence and creating social networks.
The Regime’s Response
During the pandemic, we’ve seen unprecedented levels of isolation and restrictions, closing off the country more than ever before. To buttress control, Kim Jong Un has simultaneously increased crackdowns and punishments on foreign media consumption. In December 2020, the “anti-reactionary thought law” made watching foreign media punishable by 15 years in a political prison camp.
While the situation is harrowing, the government’s extreme response underscores the power of foreign media. The regime recognizes that social changes driven by North Korean people are a threat to their authority and control in the long term.
Accelerating Foreign Media Access and Change
Moving forward, increasing access to outside information is one of the most effective ways to help the North Korean people and bring forward change.
Information and technology support for North Korean people has historically been an under-utilized and under-invested strategy. LiNK Labs is our area of work focused on this opportunity- we’re developing technologies, networks, and content to empower North Korean people with access to information and ideas from the outside world.