Someone You Should Know: Wonjung Bae

By Alexandra Kukulka

This year’s Student Academy Award for a documentary was given to a film called “Vera Klement: Blunt Edge,” which is about an 80-year-old Jewish painter’s imaginative process as she paints. Wonjung Bae, 30, directed the documentary to better understand her own mother, who is also an artist. Born in Busan, South Korea, Bae is a filmmaker who is interested in issues of identity, modernity and art.

Bae received her master’s in fine arts from Columbia and has won many awards including the Kodak Cinematographers Scholarship in 2010 and the 16th Annual Directors Guild of America Student Film Award in the women’s category. She made her first documentary,  “Grand, Father and Me,” at 16.

Bae is thinking of making her next documentary about how men and women coexist.

The Chronicle sat down with Bae to talk about the Student Academy Award given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in a national competition of more than 500 student filmmakers, as well as her passion for filmmaking and what inspires her.

The Chronicle: How would you describe your Student Academy experience?

Wonjung Bae: It was amazing. I don’t think I understand the real meaning of it yet. I think it will take longer, maybe even the rest of my life, to really understand what it means. I met so many good people who won trophies before and became big shots. On the other hand, I also met the previous winner, who went from TV filmmaking to [becoming] an office worker. So I don’t think this award guarantees anything. It all depends on what I make of it.

The Chronicle: What is “Vera Klement: Blunt Edge” about?

WB: It was about an 80-year-old Jewish painter from Chicago. The story follows her completion, her conception and her process of completing one painting.

The Chronicle: Where did you get your passion for filmmaking?

WB: My mom was an artist and my dad was a Marine. So I had a very big interest in filmmaking from a very early stage of my life. This is mainly because of the contrast between my mom’s world and my dad’s world. My mom represents this world of art, poetry and literature, while my dad represents the world of history, politics and economy. For me to better understand these two worlds, it was critical for me to find where I am and what I am. Filmmaking is how I find the solution between the clashing two worlds.

The Chronicle: What is “Grand, Father and Me” about?

WB: I wanted to trace back 100 years of South Korean history from 1882 to 1982. Within that 100 years, we went through industrialization, demarcation, Westernization and organization. At the time I made this documentary, I was questioning what’s so Korean about me and what is so Korean about the world I am living in. It’s a very short, poetic piece about my great-grandfather, my grandfather and my father and what they went through.  This documentary illustrates how I became me.

The Chronicle: How did you make such a meaningful piece at 16 years old?

WB: It was a poetic and experimental piece. I never thought it would be shown to other people. When I made it, I thought, “Who the hell would watch this?” I thought it was too personal for others to care about. I took a poetry workshop that summer and it really inspired me.  I believe the class brought out my creativity and the inner questions that I have.

The Chronicle: What inspires your documentary ideas?

WB: The most important element that my projects must have is a question that cannot be easily answered.  As long as the project has a certain question that has ironic points or certain questions that are not easily answered, I will look deeper into it. For instance, “Vera Klement: Blunt Edge” questioned why some people succeed in what they do while other people can’t make it through. Vera had been painting for 60 years, and my mom couldn’t make it as an artist. And I haven’t found the answer yet either, even after I made this documentary. But it’s not always to find the answer but about the process.

The Chronicle: Once you have your idea, what do you do next?

WB: Once it comes to the filmmaking, like the logistics of it, the production side is very practical and really opportunistic. I just go with the flow and respond to what I am given.  All my documentaries are internal questions I have. Once I get to the point of really making the film, I just become very objective and observational, almost detached to see what is coming to me.