Minch & Films (민치 앤 필름)

Interview With Documentary Producer Kim Min-chul (김민철) – Part 2

Producer Kim Min-chul

Producer Kim Min-chul

For Part 1 of the interview with documentary producer Kim Min-chul (김민철), please click on the link. In this second part, producer Kim discusses his company Minch & Films, the current environment for Korean documentaries, and his acclaimed and powerfully moving filmography.

Q) Throughout your filmography you seem to be attracted to stories about vulnerable people who find strength despite adversity. Iron Crows (아이언 크로우즈), My Barefoot Friend (오래된 인력거), Planet of Snail and Captain Kang all display this. What is it about these kinds of stories that attracts your interest? Why do you want to make documentaries about these subjects?

A) To be cynically honest with you, I don’t believe that documentaries can change the world. I am also not interested in a “Let’s change the world” type of documentary let alone making documentaries about vulnerable people in unfair world. I also try to avoid the word ‘despite’ in any synopsis or treatment I write. As a producer, what counts for me the most in selecting a project is the ‘chemistry’ I have with the director. The same rule is applied for scouting production crews. I trust my gut feeling or intuition over a profile or CV. As every other producer does, I also make mistakes in selecting projects or scouting crews and it’s usually because I ignored my gut feeling and made decisions based on conditions and situations.

Having recalled how I got involved in those films, I can only say that it’s really a series of coincidences that my filmography looks like this. I want to work with only good people because I don’t separate my professional life from private life. I am not selective about a subject but about filmmakers. I don’t care much about the subject but how a director deals with the subject. To my understanding, documentary is a form of cinema after all so it must be cinematically entertaining.

My Barefoot Friend depicts the life of rickshaw workers in Calcutta

My Barefoot Friend depicts the life of rickshaw workers in Calcutta

Maybe I can put it this way; it’s not me who found the subjects but the directors who share certain values in life, and their tendency of filmmaking, and found me.

When Seung-Jun first pitched Planet of Snail – originally it was titled Hazy Journey of the Illuminating Tree – in April 2009, I showed my clear disinterest by saying, “Good luck,” because I was already depressed to hear how miserable life is for the deaf blind man and his crippled wife. I am not interested in making films I don’t want to watch. I didn’t see any charm in the character description or the subject of disability in the two-page proposal written by Seung-Jun in the very beginning of the project. What convinced me to board the project was the director’s vision I saw in the 10 minutes short film he made of the same protagonists he presented a couple of months after his first pitch. Seung-Jun somehow managed to depict the world of a deaf and blind poet without showing any pitifulness towards the characters. I watched his first feature The Children of God in the very evening of the same day at a film festival and I could almost visualize the film Seung-Jun was going to make.

As for Iron Crows, I was fascinated by the dignity of the characters deliberately depicted as heroes, then I realized that the director Bong-Nam Park’s own experience of living as a gas cutter for 3 years really made him see them as colleagues and working class heroes more than pitiful documentary subjects.

Iron Crows captures the hardships of shipbreakers in Bangladesh

Iron Crows captures the hardships of shipbreakers in Bangladesh

Captain Kang is a film that I put most efforts and am most proud of even though it’s probably not the most successful film. What impressed me the most besides his distinctive cinematography when the director Ho-Yeon pitched his story was his attitude toward the subject. I admire his dignity and humbleness as a filmmaker very much. When I decided to produce it, I was joking to the director that soon the industry would brand me as a disability specialized producer.

Q) There are an incredible amount of Korean documentaries being produced in the industry today, mostly by independent companies. These documentaries are often successful at film festivals, yet fail to reach mainstream audiences. What do you think about the role of Korean documentaries in contemporary cinema? Why do they struggle to become ‘mainstream’?

A) I am not sure what you mean by an incredible amount of Korean documentaries. In my opinion, there are far too little documentaries produced in Korea for the size of the population or the industry and compared to the number of fiction films. I am also not sure if you can say that these documentaries are “successful” in film festival circuit. Can you name 10 successful Korean documentaries in the entire history of Korean cinema without looking up your database? Despite the significant rise of current documentaries, I don’t think there are enough documentaries produced to make any meaningful market analysis in my opinion. And the documentaries are not diverse enough compared to the documentaries that are introduced at international documentary markets and festivals. It seems that most Korean documentaries come from either activism-oriented filmmaker groups or human-interest documentary groups who are often associated with TV documentary production.

Jeju Prayer (비념) mixes activism and human interest documentary conventions in exploring the 1948 Jeju Island massacre

Jeju Prayer (비념), by Indiestory, mixes activism and human interest documentary conventions in exploring the 1948 Jeju Island massacre

Activism-oriented documentaries often try to convey political agendas directly whereas most human-interest documentaries search for touching, often tear-jerking, human stories of vulnerable, and often pitiful, characters. Knowing how documentary has developed in Korea it’s more than understandable. Knowing how badly freedom of speech is practiced in Korea, I very much appreciate the role of activism-oriented documentaries that fill a niche in the mainstream media. However, I am missing ‘diversity’ here. Why are all the documentaries dealing with serious subjects almost always in a monotonously serious and direct fashion? Why is it hard to see cinematic documentaries? At film festivals and cinemas in Europe and North America I am seeing many diverse styles of documentaries screened and they are often successful these days. Many of them are highly entertaining yet still dealing with serious subjects such as social justice, war or human rights. Personally I would love to see comedy, musical, action noir genre of documentaries made in Korea by Korean filmmakers.

Poor production quality is another thing that makes Korean documentaries invisible in mainstream cinema. Audiences don’t seem to care much whether it’s documentary or fiction when making decisions to watch films in cinema. You can’t force or beg audiences to watch a documentary despite poor production quality while the ticket prices are more or less the same, and it’s their decision which film they choose to spend their leisure time on. We filmmakers need to work on diversity and production quality of the film we make but I also think there is a serious need for more subsidies from the public sector, not only because of its value for the public good but also because documentary is too weak to freely compete in the market. The government needs to have a long-term investment plan on documentaries in order to make it sustainable. Korean cinema is one of the strongest in the international film market and Korean filmmakers really make good films, but they take time and effort. I don’t believe documentary should be an exception.

Q) You have stated in prior interviews that you have co-producers in Europe, America, and Asia. What are the benefits of having international co-productions? Why are they important/significant?

International co-productions are a great source of funding, but aren't always easy

International co-productions are a great source of funding, but aren’t always easy

A) I like to work with international crews with diverse backgrounds. This is one my strengths as a producer and I very much enjoy seeing how the collaboration between filmmakers with different cultural backgrounds creates chemistry and influences the end result of the film. Providing that filmmaking is teamwork, I feel like a great alchemist when intended collaborations work out. I finance part of my films by international co-production in return for working with production crews from the country of co-production. Planet of Snail is one of the successful cases of international co-production as the collaboration with Finnish sound team definitely added a lot to the production quality of the film, and my Finnish co-producer raised the whole expenses spent in Finland. However international co-production is a double-edged sword when it comes to the conditions for spending. The budget raised by international co-production needs to be spent according to the regulations set by each funder. Usually the money needs to be spent in the country of co-production and often they ask to hire local creative talent. It can be very good if there is room for the talent and your co-producer has the right creative talent for your film to work with. What if there is no more room for creative talents? What if you don’t know how to communicate or work with international film crews? Nowadays I see many producers and film professionals who tend to believe that international co-production is a cure for all and blindly jump into the trap of bad co-production. What’s the use of raising international funds if there is no creative talent who can contribute to the film, or you don’t know how to work together?

Q) You have created your own company Minch & Films. What do you hope to achieve through the company? Does having offices in Seoul and Holland benefit Minch & Films in any way?

Minch & Film was established in 2011

Minch & Film was established in 2011

A)  Since 2011, I founded and own my own company Minch & Films currently based in Seoul.

I established Minch & Films to be a true story based production. Currently Minch & Films is based only in Seoul while collaborating with post-production talents in Belgrade (Serbia) and multiple co-production partners in Europe and North America.

Currently Minch & Films (or better as producer Min-Chul Kim) is more known internationally than domestically but we are not only making documentaries for international audiences but also for Korean audiences. We are not sticking to the documentary genre or film as platform but cross over genres and media such as game and comics.

(Please follow this link for Minch & Films facebook page)

Q) Can you give any details about any future documentaries and collaborations you are involved in? Will you use Minch & Films to help promote them?

A) State of Play is a feature documentary about what it takes to be a pro-gamer featuring the e-sports champion Lee Jae-Dong. This is a minor co-production with Visualantics, a emerging documentary production in Belgium. I brought Korean Communication Committee and Seoul Film Commission on board and it’s currently in the final post- production to be released in the summer. (See below for the trailer).

MotoSeoul is a feature documentary about young people living on the edge of Seoul dependent on the speed of motorcycle such as quick service rider, Chinese deliveryman and high school bikey gang in the style of Hong Kong noir movie. It has been developed with Seoul Film Commission’s international co-production development support in 2011 although I have been developing this project since 2006. I am expecting to start production in the summer with Ho-Yeon Won as director (Captain Kang’s director).

Scream For Me Sarajevo is a music documentary about heavy metal legend Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden’s frontman) and his band’s journey to war torn Sarajevo during the siege in 1994, and what a music concert meant to the people in the least humane living condition. It’s a music film, a road movie and a documentary about war, bravery and human dignity. I am currently visiting London for the pre-production meeting with Bruce and forming the production team. It’s in the early stage of pre-production.

Q) Finally, what do you think about the current environment of Korean documentaries on the global stage? Are they well received, or are there limitations? For example, how do you promote your films internationally to achieve a high profile?

Producer Kim discusses his projects

Producer Kim discusses his projects

A) Relatively more Korean documentaries are introduced to the international market since some of the documentaries achieved some level of international success. However global documentary markets are heavily dominated by European and North American productions while documentaries not only about China as subject but also directed and produced by Chinese are growing significantly in numbers as well as in quality. To promote my films internationally, I participate in pitch forums, film markets and festivals and work with international partners such as sales agent, co-producers, and publicists. I also experiment with multimedia platform. For example, I produced an educational app for learning finger braille language to promote social engagement of Planet of Snail. You can download the app simply by opening the site www.planetofsnail.com on any tablet device such as iPad.

In order for Korean documentaries to be better received, we need more supports from Kofic and other public sector. There are always supporters behind successful documentaries.

Hanguk Yeonghwa is incredibly grateful for Producer Kim for taking the time for this interview, and be sure to look out for his future documentaries on the film festival circuit.

Interviews/Q&As Producers
Minch & Films (민치 앤 필름)

Interview With Documentary Producer Kim Min-chul (김민철) – Part 1

Producer Kim Min-chul

Producer Kim Min-chul

Producer Kim Min-chul (김민철) has been quite a prolific figure on the film festival circuit over the past few years. Working hard to foster Korean filmmaking talent in conjunction with international co-productions, the documentary producer has been responsible for a string of acclaimed films that capture human endeavours in fascinating and thought-provoking ways.

His most successful film is the powerfully moving Planet of Snail (달팽이의 별) directed by Yi Seung-Jun (이승준), which featured in festivals worldwide as well as winning several notable accolades.

Producer Kim very kindly agreed to be interviewed about his history as a filmmaker, his perspective on international co-productions, and his thoughts on the future of Korean documentaries.

Q) Planet of Snail has been one of the most successful Korean documentaries in recent memory, achieving international acclaim in several continents. Can you describe how you achieved such success?

A) Planet of Snail has been screened at over 80 festivals so far since its national premiere at EIDF in 2010 winning a dozen of prizes including Joris Ivens award at IDFA and Best documentary feature at Silverdocs. It was theatrically released in Korea, Japan, USA, UK, Netherlands and Belgium and broadcasted over 20 countries. It certainly has become one of the most internationally acclaimed Korean documentaries and the film is still traveling around festivals even at this moment.

Critically acclaimed Planet of Snail has been incredibly successful

Critically acclaimed Planet of Snail has been incredibly successful

However, Planet of Snail began as a small project with a small local crew and minor indie subject of a disabled protagonist. As far as the subject or the production scale are concerned it was not meant to be this successful or popular. It was not easy at all to convince the people we need to have on board both locally and internationally. At local pitch forums, professionals didn’t understand why we need 2 years to finish a “human interest documentary” and advised us to lower down the budget that was already cut half to please the local standard. At international markets, no one questioned about the budget (the realistic one) or the production timeline but it was still not considered as a project to be this successful in the following year. A well-acclaimed professional even told us that this film is not sellable which was a real heartbreak for emerging filmmakers like us without much international experience. In the end we managed to get multiple national and international funds and broadcasters on board after all including EIDF (EBS Int’l Documentary Festival), BCPF (Broadcast Content Promotion Foundation), Sundance Documentary Fund, Cinereach Grant, Finnish Film Foundation, YLE and NHK.

Perhaps one of the keys to the success of this film is the development we’ve been through in an international documentary environment. I brought this project to Eurodoc, which is one of the European initiatives for educating international documentary professionals. I was lucky enough to be the first Asian producer among over a couple of dozen producers from all over Europe. The courses were divided into 3 sessions a week for each session over the period of a year. In different stages of production I was able to get feedback from various professionals including fellow producers, sales agents and commissioning editors and we also realized the potential of the film as a love story. While we pitched the project at several national and international pitch forums, we got to know the strengths and weaknesses of the project and evaluate the market potential of it. We also learned that a lot of people see the story as a love story which had never been our focus of the original dramaturgy. I must not forget to mention the benefit of having a colorful team of international crew. There were over a dozen members in the international crew involved in and out of the production with more than 10 different nationalities including a Lebanese editor, a Finnish sound designer, a Japanese commissioning editor, a Dutch poster designer, a US funder and a French sales agent etc. I am also almost proud to say that we formed the team not for the sake of international co-production budget spending regulations, but based on true artistic connections and the positive chemistry we had with each other.

Q) Why do you think this film resonates deeply with audiences?

A) What makes the film outstanding is not the subject itself but the film(maker)’s attitude toward the subject. There is almost no distance between the people in front of camera and those behind it in the film. The protagonists are vulnerable minorities who are usually protective against media but they act natural as if no one is seeing them. One could imagine that it’s impossible for a filmmaker to make such scenes without earning their trust with their whole heart. I have a huge respect for Seung-Jun for his sincerity and I believe that audiences felt it on the screen.

The unique world of Soon-ho and Yeong-chan is wonderfully conveyed

The unique world of Soon-ho and Yeong-chan is wonderfully conveyed

Director’s vision is another thing. The world’s most talented film crews would be useless without a visionary director. Filmmaking is teamwork and even the smallest documentary production involves a team. It wouldn’t have been possible to make such a unique film without a director like Seung-Jun who had been there almost invisibly for such a long time and captured the precious moments of everyday life and the special world of the deaf and blind and put them into screen as he saw and understood it.

We put a lot of effort in post-production in order to depict the sensitive, fragile and beautifully innocent world of the deaf and blind. Did I mention that Planet of Snail is edited by Lebanese filmmaker Simon El Habre who made One Man Village, the 2009 Hotdocs winner? Tom Fleischman, a five times Oscar nominated sound designer whose filmography includes The Silence of the Lambs supervised our sound post team in Finland.

Planet of Snail is one of the examples that show how a filmmaker’s vision is reflected in a documentary film. Among hundreds of different definitions of documentary, my favorite one is “creative interpretation of reality with personal view”.

Q) You have re-teamed with Planet of Snail director Yi Seung-jun for your latest documentary production. Can you tell us about the film?

A) Wind on the Moon is the story about a born deaf blind girl who can only express herself by crying, screaming, laughing and smiling and her devoted mother who struggles to understand her language like a secret code inscribed on the moon. We again took a poetic approach with the title. The moon is a lonely place where deaf blind girl Yeji may feel she lives in. There is no wind on the moon and no one else but the mother can feel the wind. Yeji in real life also loves to feel wind.

Director Yi Seung-jun's unintrusive, compassionate style has garnered international interest

Director Yi Seung-jun’s unintrusive, compassionate style has garnered international interest

So we have another deaf blind protagonist but the subject is not the same nor is it Planet of Snail II. As far as the level of disability is concerned, Young-Chan (Planet of Snail) has at least a language but Yeji (Wind on the Moon) doesn’t and this could bring us to a different level of philosophical question; what makes a human a human? Young-Chan was able to learn braille language because he gradually lost his vision and hearing in his teenage whereas Yeji was born deaf and blind.

However, the biggest difference is the perspective of the narrative. Whereas in Planet of Snail the deaf blind protagonist leads the narrative (or tells the story) from his own perspective, in Wind on the Moon not the deaf blind girl but her mother’s perspective leads the narrative. Whereas Planet of Snail focuses on the inner world of deaf blind poet and his love story with his wife, Wind on the Moon focuses on the mother’s devotion and her struggle to communicate with her daughter. The story is told from the perspective of a mother of a disabled child and I believe there will be more audiences who could sympathize with characters this way compared to that of Planet of Snail.

In Wind on the Moon, the camera is almost invisible but still very intimate and close (I call it ‘A fly on the shoulder’ approach compared to ‘A fly on the wall’ approach). Last week, Seung-Jun showed me some scenes selected from the footage he shot over the last couple of months and I said anyone could tell it’s his film. It’s so intimate and lovely yet deliberately captures precious moments of the everyday life of the mother and the daughter. I look very much forward to see the movie as an audience myself.

Q) Why did you decide to work with director Lee again?

Captain Kang follows a disabled ship's captain

Captain Kang follows a disabled ship’s captain

A) Since the triumph of Planet of Snail at IDFA 2011, both Seung-Jun and I became busier than ever. While I was busy traveling and sharing my experiences of producing Planet of Snail at master classes here and there, I was force to finish up my next feature Captain Kang (강선장) with post-production crews in Belgrade. Seung-Jun has been traveling festivals and representing the film almost constantly for over a half of a year so we didn’t really have a chance to digest all the impressions and talk about what’s next until we met in Sheffield (How global we are!). When Seung-Jun pitched Wind on the Moon to me, I said, “You seem to have found the right project.” Seung-Jun seemed very happy to hear that because most feedback he had so far have been rather negative as they were not interested in another story with the same subject. I knew he saw something very special and worthy to make a film of in the protagonists. He is a man who doesn’t say anything before he is sure of. I trust Seung-Jun’s deliberate personality. Seung-Jun wanted to be safe with the production side of it especially because now the world documentary community is watching him for his next film.

Please see below for the trailer for Captain Kang:

For part 2 of the interview, please click on the link here.

Interviews/Q&As Producers