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!
The Red Box: Misunderstandings and Stereotypes about North Koreans
For North Korean refugees, resettling in a new society comes with many challenges. One of these challenges is overcoming the stereotypes about North Korea and the North Korean people.
In the latest episode of The Red Box, our North Korean friends and 2019 LiNK Advocacy Fellows talk about the struggle of of facing stereotypes after resettling in South Korea.
Watch as Jeongyol, Joy, Dasom, and Ilhyeok answer your questions in The Red Box Series!
Read the transcript of this episode below!
All: Welcome to the Red Box!
Are there any misunderstandings about the North Korean people that make you feel uncomfortable?
Joy: When I first came to South Korea, was working part-time at a convenience store. I was still very young and had a very heavy North Korean accent.
In South Korea, when a customer enters the part-time employees don't really greet them. But I used to greet the customers standing and say "Welcome!" so people would ask me where I'm from.
I'd tell them that I'm from North Korea. They'd say "oh really?" After they get their stuff and put them on the counter, they'd asked me if I ever had jjajangmyun or pork in North Korea? They'd ask me these types of questions. Some people ask because they don't know but sometimes they ask questions that insinuate that we were all so poor in North Korea. Not everyone in North Korea is like that. There's people who live well too
Jeongyol: If someone asked me that, I’d tell them I might've lived a wealthier life there [in North Korea].
Joy: So those types of questions made me feel a little uncomfortable.
Jeongyol: A lot of people think like that.
Dasom: People think that all North Koreans are poor, ignorant, and uneducated. People have told me that even though I must have starved and lived poorly in North Korea, I don't look the part.
Maybe some people did or didn't have enough food to eat. There are poor people and there are rich people too. Every country is the same — it’s the same in South Korea too. There are rich, poor, and homeless people in South Korea too. I don't think it's right to judge someone like that. It made me feel very uncomfortable
Jeongyol: When I was in high school, there was a soccer match between North Korea and South Korea. But all of a sudden they asked me which team I'm cheering for. So I was startled by the question.
Should I say I'm cheering for North Korea or South Korea? What's my identity?
Even though I'm living in South Korea as a South Korean citizen, they didn't recognize the fact that I'm also South Korean. That we were the same people.
So at the time I answered, "I'm not cheering for either team. I don't care who wins. I’m just watching the game for fun.” It went over smoothly but afterward I kept thinking about it. But now that I think about it…It wasn't my choice to be born in North Korea.
Jeongyol: I could've been born in the U.S. but somehow I was born in North Korea.
Anyone could've been born in North Korea.
It's not anyone's fault. So from that moment on, I became confident. I am just who I am.
Ilhyeok: I have this older friend from China. During holidays like in January, he'd always ask me if I am visiting my hometown. Whenever he asks me that question, I want to be able to tell him that I'm am going [home] but I can't because I can't go back so I just don’t answer him. When he asked me if I'm going home, I just wished that I could return home one day.
It's heartbreaking not being able to go home.
During Chuseok and New Year's Day, those two holidays are when I miss home the most.
Joy: One uncomfortable question for me was when I was in school or met people was when they asked me why there's no riot or uprising in North Korea. Sometimes people ask because they really don't know but sometimes they insinuate that we're cowards.
And with that viewpoint, they ask why we won't revolt against the government. I try to explain but they still insist and say, ”But you guys still should have done something.” That makes me a little sad.
In North Korea, there's a system of monitoring each other. So if one person says something bad, they'd get reported right away and taken.
Jeongyol: In South Korea there were a lot of civil riots so they ask why we didn't do anything in North Korea.
Joy: But it's a very different situation.
Jeongyol: The system doesn't allow it.
What also made me uncomfortable was if I did something wrong, people would blame it because I'm North Korean.
They say things like, “It's because she's North Korean.” That made me upset. Other people say bad things and make mistakes too. But because of one mistake they say all North Koreans are like that and that I wouldn't know things or be able to do things because I'm from North Korea.
I hated hearing that so I wouldn't tell anyone that I was from North Korea.