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!
Humans of North Korea: This is freedom
I got foreign media from my dad. He was a member of the Korean Workers Party and many of his friends were security agents. They confiscated a lot of foreign media and gave it to my dad and he would bring it home.
Some of my most vivid memories are getting together with my friends at someone’s house, shutting off all the lights, and secretly watching South Korean dramas. It was exhilarating. If you heard anything outside, you’d get startled and think,
“Did they come to arrest us? Are we going to jail now?” It was thrilling doing things we knew we shouldn’t do.
Everything portrayed in the South Korean dramas was so clean and everyone seemed so wealthy. I used to think “Wow, there is such a world out there.” We were taught that South Korea was a poor country but I wondered, “Why can’t we live like that?”
I wanted to wear clothes from the dramas but I couldn’t find them anywhere. We used to get a lot of used clothes from the market down by the harbor. You either find used clothes or fabric and have a tailor make the outfit for you. After three or four days of wearing a new style, everyone would be wearing the same thing because it looked so cool.
My designs were very popular. If I started wearing something new, there was always someone who would wear similarly styled clothes because the number of South Korean dramas that inspired us was so limited. Girls would ask me where I got my clothes and if I wanted to exchange outfits. Bartering was very common and sometimes they’d offer their more expensive clothes in exchange for mine.
But you had to look out for the Inspection Unit. If they caught you wearing jeans and a hoodie, they’d cut the bottom of the jeans with scissors. My sister and brother were older than me so their friends were sometimes in the Inspection Unit. If I knew the person, I would just tell them, “I’ll go change right now” or “I’ll give you these jeans but please don’t cut the bottoms off” and I would go get it back from them later.
The regime doesn’t want people wearing those kinds of clothes. I think it’s because things like jeans symbolize freedom. North Korean society is so restricted that if they allowed jeans there would be no end to what people would want to wear.
Even now in South Korea, every time I put on a pair of jeans I think, “This is freedom.”
- Jihyun Kang escaped North Korea in 2009. She now works in the fashion industry in Seoul.