I Am Sun Mu
Adam Sjöberg x Mariana Blanco
Portrait by Laurence Vannicelli
“There’s something magical about an
American and a North Korean defector telling a story
together. It’s a powerful reconciliation.”
— Mariana Blanco
I AM SUN MU
A 2015 documentary by Adam Sjöberg profiling artist Sun Mu (alias meaning “no boundaries”), a North Korean defector wanted by the state for execution. Sun Mu uses his art to counter the oppressive propaganda of his home country. I Am Sun Mu follows Sun Mu as he prepares undercover for a solo exhibition in China, potentially risking his own freedom and safety.
Co-founder of Required Reading Productions, Adam Sjöberg is a filmmaker and photojournalist whose work has taken him to over 60 countries. He has directed the documentaries Shake the Dust (executive produced by rapper Nas) and I Am Sun Mu.
Mariana Blanco is a documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Her work has been shown at Sundance Film Festival and won TED’s Ideas Worth Spreading. As a documentary editor, she has worked with Adam Sjöberg on Shake the Dust and I Am Sun Mu.
LIBERTY IN NORTH KOREA
Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) is a nonprofit organization based in Torrance, CA, and Seoul, South Korea. LiNK’s primary clients are North Korean refugees hiding in China. LiNK resettles these refugees in South Korea and the United States to avoid forced repatriation to North Korea and its harsh illegal emigration penalties.
SHAKE THE DUST
Shake The Dust is a 2014 documentary about young breakdancers, or B-Boys and B-Girls, in the slums of Colombia, Cambodia, Uganda and Yemen who use hip-hop to provoke positive social change. In an effort to forgo presuppositions or superimposed interpretation, the film’s nontraditional storytelling is led by its subjects. Shake The Dust captures the vibrant art of breakdancing in the most unlikely places.
I Am Sun Mu, a documentary directed by Adam Sjöberg and edited by Mariana Blanco, chronicles Sun Mu, a North Korean defector who makes political pop art based on his life, homeland and hope for a future united Korea. This is the second film Sjöberg and Blanco have collaborated on and hopefully not the last. It’s clear that their deep humanity and dedication lends whatever they touch a life force of its own—one that crosses cultural and political boundaries, from convincing Sun Mu to collaborate in telling his story, despite the risks involved, to dispelling the prejudice around North Koreans.
Amid their global travels, Sjöberg and Blanco talk about forming a special connection with Sun Mu, their creative process and why they remain devoted to the medium of documentary storytelling.
Mariana Blanco: Can you explain your first meeting with Sun Mu?
Adam Sjöberg: The first night I met Sun Mu I went to his studio, and he was really intimidating. He had all this cool art. I was blown away not just by his art, but how prolific he was. He was smoking away at his cigarettes. I wanted a picture of him, so he put this scarf over his face and put on sunglasses.
Justin Wheeler, Vice President of Liberty in North Korea, had wanted to make a documentary about him, so the pretext for going out to dinner with Sun Mu was to convince him to do it. But as soon as we got out to eat, they told me in English, “He’s already said he won’t do it.” I was like, “Okay, so why are we here?” But we just started drinking Soju and, before I knew it, Sun Mu and I really connected. It was one of those moments where I didn’t feel the language barrier. I don’t remember Justin or Annie, the translator, being there anymore.
It took over a year before we actually started filming, but pretty much right away I thought, this will work. You just know when someone is a good person, and I think we both thought that about each other.
“It was a collaboration between all
of us with Sun Mu as the guiding
narrator. The film is carried by his
own interpretation of things.”
— ADAM SJÖBERG
MB: It is crazy how without shared language, you can have a true understanding. Hanging out with you both, I can see how that happened.
What blows my mind is if you think about everything Sun Mu grew up with in North Korea, it was all propaganda against the United States. Americans are the bad guys. There’s something magical about an American and a North Korean defector telling a story together. It’s a powerful reconciliation in my mind.
AS: Sun Mu created sketches and played music for the film. His art is a big part of the movie and comes to life with Ryan Wehner’s animation. It was a collaboration between all of us with Sun Mu as the guiding narrator. The film is carried by his own interpretation of things. When we screened the film at DMZ Docs [held in South Korea], several South Koreans said it helped them understand North Koreans in a whole new light because there is so much prejudice between South and North.
Someone commented that they loved how many kids were in the movie. Are there any other exciting things in the film that happened in the process?
MB: Sun Mu is surrounded by kids right now: he has two daughters and he paints children in that propaganda style. His fingerprints are all over the footage. I also liked how much rock he listens to. He always had music playing in his studio. I could kind of identify with that—growing up in a secluded environment, then suddenly entering the world of music for the first time in your life. Every time I was watching footage, there was another ’60s surf rock song.
AS: When the film was premiering in Korea, people asked me, “How did you keep a good distance from Sun Mu so you could be impartial?” But that is actually something I don’t agree with. I think it’s impossible to be impartial. My entire approach is to become good friends with whomever I’m documenting. I don’t know how you can really tell someone’s story unless you get to know them intimately. It’s pretty hard to not love someone when you learn about their pain and what makes them who they are.
Let’s talk about process. We worked together on a documentary before this called Shake The Dust, but it was different in that we didn’t start from scratch. I Am Sun Mu, on the other hand, is our first experience working together from zero. What have you learned as an editor that informs your process moving forward?
MB: I learned how to approach a story from the perspective of language. This film is almost entirely in Korean with some Chinese, so I read a lot of transcripts before I ever sat at the computer and made notes about themes and ideas.
The decision to center this film on the exhibition in China created a very clear, straight shot of a narrative. I also enjoyed being part of such a tight-knit crew. A very small number of people made this happen, and we all did a range of things—from our composer giving notes, to the animator and I flying to China to film the exhibition.
AS: One of the things I learned on the film—and something I’m always going to be honing—is when to be emotionally connected and when to detach a little bit. There are so many things that we loved, but they just couldn’t be in the film. It’s sort of like an abstract painting in that you have to feel when it’s done. You have to be unemotional about what is not in the movie. If I lined up all the missing things, it would be painful, so I had to forget about them.
MB: This is your second feature. Do you want to keep doing documentaries?
AS: I want to do scripted films as well as documentaries. There’s an intuitive growth in storytelling that happens slowly with the projects you work on. You can learn the math of first act, second act, third act, but that only does so much when you are trying to accomplish it in a film. Ultimately, I always want to tell true stories. I like the documentary format because I’ve always loved getting to know humans.
How did you find yourself making documentaries in the first place, going back to the beginning?
“I think it’s impossible to be impartial.
My entire approach is to become good friends
with whomever I’m documenting. I don’t
know how you can tell someone’s story unless
you get to know them intimately.”
— ADAM SJÖBERG
MB: I didn’t see a film in the theater until I was 14. Up until then, I was trained in computer science because my dad is a computer scientist, so I was programming and engineering even that young. When I saw my first movie in the theater, The English Patient, I was blown away by how much emotion could be bottled up in an hour and a half. I wanted to take my engineering mind to it—let’s take this apart. How did this work. How did this get put together?—so I ended up in film school. An editor’s job is really to take a story apart, put it back together and do that over and over until you find the clearest, most interesting narrative. I don’t know that I wanted to be a storyteller. I was just curious about how all these feelings work together in film.
I think it’s cool that the first movie ever shown was a train arriving at a station, and everyone just ran out of the theater. That is what I felt like that first time I saw a movie—I need to get out of here. I’m being hit by a train.
AS: We both love films for how they make us feel, but you approach it more from your analytical brain and your fascination with how you can construct things. When I’m editing it’s very touchy-feely emotive—see how it feels until it feels good. When we’re both working together on something, I tend to be more micro; you tend to be more macro. I think it’s interesting that those two are opposing, but they work.
MB: I think they’re very complimentary. How did you end up in documentary work?
AS: I made documentaries beginning at age eight. I had a giant VHS camcorder and would interview my grandma and cut it to B-roll with two VCRs. I’d do the talking-head interview of her then show the farm that she grew up on.
I saved my lawn-mowing money to buy a small digital camera and made movies with that. In college I studied photography, which I still love, but it was really natural with the advent of the Mark 2 that I would start shooting video. I connect with that story form because it’s the most imaginative, the most transportive with visuals and music. Whenever I do anything, I want to have the biggest audience possible. I feel that with film you have the biggest opportunity to reach an audience.
Images courtesy of Art Represent
* Translated by Google