There is enough hardship in this life that you can get for free, so why buy hardship for yourself?”—so goes an old Korean saying, roughly translated. Some friends of Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, a Korean-American filmmaker who lives and works in D.C., tell her she’s courting more than her share of hardship these days.
That Gibson has chosen the lovingly restored Lincoln Theater as the venue to preview her film, A Forgotten People: The Sakhalin Koreans, says a lot about her. It was not enough that she felt a calling to make an independent film about the indentured Koreans who labored and languished on the forsaken island of Sakhalin—first for the Japanese, then the Soviets. Nor was it enough that she had to borrow more than $50,000 to make the film. Two years after starting the project, Gibson has decided that the completed work can and must be used to create a dialogue between Koreans and African-Americans.
“I thought I could use this film to get started, to share each other’s history,” Gibson says. “If only I could bring Koreans to the Lincoln Theater, this African-American theater in the heart of where they used to call “Black Broadway,’ I could combat a lot of the stereotyped images Koreans have of African-Americans. I would also be sharing Koreans’ oppressed history with African-Americans, and that way we begin.”
In A Forgotten People, Gibson tells the story of tens of thousands of Koreans who traveled to the island off the Siberian coast to work in coal mines, army bases, forests, and on railroads for the Japanese during World War II. Almost all of them were poor; some went voluntarily, thinking they would be paid well for their backbreaking work. All of those who went after 1942 were forced to leave their families and assist in the imperial war effort. When the war ended three years later, 20,000 of the 40,000 Korean laborers on the island had vanished—many say they were killed systematically by the Japanese.
Those who survived assumed they would be sent home. Instead, they remained, displaced by Japan and abandoned by Korea, then a country in chaos. Sakhalin’s postwar ruler, the Soviet Union, used the Koreans as cheap labor to rebuild the island during the Cold War. About 1,000 of these stateless workers are still alive; most are looking for compensation, and hope to see their motherland before they die.
The power of A Forgotten People, which previews in D.C. next week and will appear on PBS next year, is in its understated grace. The film is a classic work of oral history. It does not underscore its storytelling with technical feats or overemphasize its most grueling moments. The laborers, as well as some of their wives and children, tell their stories lyrically, albeit randomly. The older men speak with fanatic, urgent detail, as if they have never told their stories before and may never get a chance to again. The pain of their memories is sometimes unbearable. All the while, visual details of the Koreans’ everyday lives—piles of green tomatoes ripening on a floor, or women cooking and bagging Korean delicacies—reveal the constancy of culture, especially among the displaced.
Gibson, a religion scholar and former professor at Mount Holyoke College, only recently became involved with the plight of the Sakhalin Koreans. Her journey began in 1993: Gibson was researching a book on Korean comfort women—who were forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers during the war—when she read a speech by Park Hae Dong, the president of the Sakhalin Koreans Aged Men’s Association, at an international public hearing. “August 15, 1945, “the day of liberation,’ finally came,” Park said. “For us Koreans in Sakhalin, the greatest joy of all was to return to our country where our parents, wives, and children awaited….But no one had expected that we would have to pay for the “liberation’ by spending the next 50 years in internment.”
After reading Park’s statement, Gibson determined to visit Sakhalin, even if it meant borrowing an absurd sum of money—which of course it did. (To start, her father-in-law loaned her his entire retirement savings, $50,000. “That one I have to pay back,” Gibson says dryly.) Previously, the filmmaker had produced and written America Becoming, a look at the changing face of the U.S. as an immigrant nation. She also wrote SA-I-GU (which means “April 29”), a film about theaftermath of the L.A. riots from the perspective of Korean shopworkers. But it wasn’t until she flew to Sakhalin that Gibson faced her biggest challenge. It dawned on her that she was afraid: She would be asking elderly Korean men to open up their hearts to her, an uncoventional Korean woman who had lived in America longer than in Korea.
Gibson left Korea in 1962 at age 24 to pursue a doctoral degree in religious studies at Boston University. Boston was the heart of the nascent feminist movement, and the other women in her dorm would often approach her while she was studying, preaching the gospel according to Betty Friedan. “They assumed that because I was from Asia, I was this submissive woman; it used to make me so mad. I’d say, “Look, I came over here from Korea with $25 and 44 pounds of luggage. I’m living what you only read about. Leave me alone.’ ”
The filmmaker’s creative involvement with human rights, racial strife, and the roots of oppression has a personal resonance that springs from her own childhood. She has intense memories, as indelible as if she had captured them on film: the day, during the years when Korea was still a Japanese colony, when she was punished for speaking Korean in school; the night she crossed the 38th parallel on foot with her family. (She was seven. Her father, who was involved with the movement for Korean independence, was fleeing the North Koreans.) Then there was the day that her family’s new house in Seoul was bombed—by American and South Korean bombers. Hours after the bombing, she crawled out of her home and saw dead bodies splayed in the street. She had not yet turned 13.
Gibson entered the independent documentary fray only as recently as the late ’80s, when she came to a crossroads in an academic career that had grown too safe and too isolating. She had taught college for about 10 years and then worked as a program officer and director for organizations like the National Endowment for the Humanities and the New York State Council of the Arts for another 10. The filmmaker, who looks impossibly young today even though she is approaching 60, knew then that she did not want to spend the rest of her life making it possible for other people to do their work.
She traveled to Sakhalin in 1993 and met with the Korean Aged Men’s Association her first night there. They were as skeptical of her as she had imagined; some were outright hostile. Gibson did not know then that many reporters, most of them from South Korea, had preceded her. She learned later that these journalists told the Sakhalin Koreans that if they told their stories, they would get compensation from the Japanese and be repatriated to Korea if they wanted to return. Instead of making false promises, Gibson told them to take the long-term view, to think of preserving their stories. “I asked them to tell me, “What do you want your grandchild to remember you by? Tell me that story….I want to know how you feel. What was it like to live on this island?’ ”
One of the most poignant moments in the film depicts an older man, a former laborer and Gibson’s unoffical travel guide, squatting in a Soviet-style cemetery on the Full Moon Festival Day, when Koreans go to ancestors’ graves to pay their respects. He passes the grave of a friend who died before fulfilling his dream of returning to Korea. He sits graveside and sings the song they sang together after 14-hour days in the mines 50 years ago.
“That morning it rained hard,” Gibson recalls. “I was worried because we got everything ready, and he came a half-hour late and in a really bad mood. He said, “We are not going to the cemetery, see, it is raining.’ I was trying so hard to be polite and not get my temper out. But he had been very moody and I had had it. I was very firm. I said, “I have one question for you. Do you think the rain will drive tombstones away?’ He stared at me. I said, “I’m going to go and shoot tombstones, so let’s go.’ He led the way….He stood there in the rain and sang that song next to his friend’s grave, and after that everything was open. His emotion flew out of him.”
A Forgotten People: The Sakhalin Koreans screens Sunday, Nov. 5, at the Lincoln Theater. For reservations call (202) 293- 2174.