Groove Korea, 2015-06-01
The sun is setting on Haebangchon’s boulevard and the last of the tourists are slipping into the incipient dusk; the locals lounge a little longer at the close of the holiday weekend.
Kevin Lambert is sitting at a table opening out onto the street illuminated by the screen of his laptop while basking in the burnt umber of the sun. He’s poised to exchange information with anyone online or passing by with one foot in the analog world and the other in the digital domain. Lambert talks to me about the Jeonju Film Festival, using it as a pivot to make connections to other directors and movies and projects before looping back round to the event. He apologizes for the lack of focus in his chatter with the same baffling ingenuousness as the Northern European who asks forgiveness for speaking English “inelegantly.” Words come with a clarity and consistency that one rarely gets outside a textual format or from someone who is so familiar with a subject that any discussion on it becomes a motor skill.
His latest film project is something of a social experiment; it’s as local as the little café in which he is perched and as global as the screen in front of him will allow. The Korea Indie and Expat Movie Festival will arrive on our doorstep June 18 with an array of films: 38 shorts and nine feature-length works by local and international filmmakers. The selection was made from over 150 submissions from over 20 countries including Tuvalu and Iran. Independent movies will be featured but more interestingly, movies by expats about expatriatism. Bookended by screenings at Indiespace at Seoul Cinema, all other screenings will be either indoor or outdoor and are planned to be in smaller, more intimate spaces, run by local businesses in Haebangchon, Gyeongnidan and Itaewon. This decision was as central to the ideological themes of the event as it was for convenience: viewers don’t need to taxi across town to catch another flick; being uprooted is limited to the films and the discussions.
KIXFF originated as a grant proposal for $1,000 (USD) from Smplmchn.com, which the team didn’t win, but Lambert’s interest was undiminished. Originally anchored in the concept of movies about expat issues, it expanded to include low-budget independent films that demanded to be seen. As a film enthusiast, he has suitably looked at the project from multiple angles. For the audience, he offers an experience of intimacy and engagement.
“If we can get people talking, even when they don’t like a film, perhaps we can encourage them to make their own. Everybody has a camera, thus everybody can make a film. We want to pull back the curtain and show how this machine works.”
This transparency is not only for audience members and potential filmmakers but for those who submitted to the festival, too. Lambert’s team made sure the selection process was clear and gave each film constructive feedback. If it’s not completely unique, this is certainly a profound rarity on the festival scene. The governing body, at all stages, is empathy.
What lies at its thematic core is the question of being an expat; not only concerned with what local expats are doing but what it means to be an expat anywhere in the world and an exploration of what it is to be “home.”
“Herbie of Montlieu Goes to Distant Lands” is a doc by a filmmaker looking to find his wayward Uncle Herb, whom he has only known through the wild dissimulated tales from his Grandpa, and who his family has known little about since he left for the Korean War.
“The Winds that Scatter” and “Self-Deportation: The Untold Tale of a Marginal Woman” both take wildly different approaches to the American dream and the risks of having to create a new home. In the “Winds that Scatter,” a Syrian man meets with the fiscal challenges of being an immigrant in America. “Self-Deportation: The Untold Tale of a Marginal Woman” explores America as a dream-like urban landscape peppered with archetypical versions of cheerleaders and firefighters and toying with psychoanalytic concepts of the “unhomely/uncanny.”
“Home Movie,” a festival premiere and a favorite of Lambert’s, approaches themes of immigration and abandonment and plunges deep into the challenges of retrieval, leaving questions for the grander scope of filmmaking and photography in their pursuit of recording or even creating “home.”
And as we watch them here in Seoul, there will be the chance to experience films beyond their geographic origins — in a second tier of displacement. It is a near-literal demonstration of the idea that things we create are like postcards; when we send them out into the world they take on new meaning, new responses, new uses.
The day-trippers that we see disappearing back into environs more familiar to them are in fact Korean. Itaewon, Gyeongnidan and even Haebangchon have become popular spots for some light cultural tourism. Couples and groups cheerily take snaps of stores and locals, creating their own digital postcards to be uploaded to the ubiquitous world of the Internet. This has met with an occasionally insightful but often prickly discussion of what it means to be an expat in Korea. KIXFF might just redefine how expats engage with their (dis)position. That sense of isolation will be overcome through witnessing the same challenges in different countries. The feeling of powerlessness is overturned through creating new ways of expressing a problem, new pathways in finding solutions and a new sense of taking control. We all bear the responsibility of making the place in which we live our home. KIXFF encourages us to work together to form that community. It’s just beginning and Lambert isn’t promising the world; but he just might reinvent the neighborhood.