Mahbub Alam, director of the 4th Migrant Worker Film Festival, speaks to The Korea Times about multiculturalism in Korea.
/ Korea Times Photo
by Lee Hyo-won
By Lee Hyo-won
``Jjambbong'' is one of the most widely consumed local dishes, but it is neither Korean nor Chinese. The seafood noodle soup literally means ``mixture.''
The Migrant Worker Film Festival (MWFF) celebrates the jjambbong spirit in the cultural context. ``It's about cultural jjambong or multiculturalism, mixing together. We need to recognize foreigners as being part of the Korean social fabric,'' Mahbub Alam, a laborer-turned-cineaste and MWFF festival director, told The Korea Times in Seoul, Thursday.
The foreign resident population surpasses 1 million while the number of migrant workers exceeds 520,000. However, many South Koreans seize upon the outdated notion of the country being homogenous, save for the native speaker English teachers at local academies and occasional news reports or documentaries spotlighting exploited migrant workers.
``The press often portray us with a pitiful eye, but that makes people feel uncomfortable and avoid us more,'' said Alam, who has been living in Korea for 10 years and is married to a Korean.
``I feel how people treat me differently every day, on the street, the subway. Of course some people are just here to work temporarily and don't care to integrate. I'm not the representative for migrant workers, but I just wish that Koreans would recognize diversity,'' he said in impeccable Korean.
The MWFF was launched in 2006 to raise awareness about not just human rights but more importantly to promote jjambong or integration of cultures. The fourth edition opens this weekend in Seoul, presenting 22 films from 14 countries that show diverse perspectives of both professionals and amateurs.
Alex Rivera’s “Sleep Dealer” will open the 4th Migrant Worker Film Festival, Saturday at Indiespace, JoongAng Cinema, Myeong-dong. / Courtesy of MWFF
The opening film ``Sleep Dealer'' (Mexico, 2008) appeared at the Sundance International Film Festival, but there are others produced and directed by migrant workers.
Some will recognize Alam as the star of Shin Dong-il's romantic comedy ``Bandhobi,'' currently in theaters and recently featured at the Seoul International Youth Film Festival. It is also slated to show at the MWFF.
Like his smiling Bangladeshi character Karim, the festival director is an intellectual whose accounting degree was not recognized in Korea. His first three years here laboring in factories were harsh to say the least. He needed an outlet, and participated in organizations for migrant workers' rights. Being a front man led to media exposure and eventually the world of filmmaking, and he now acts and directs for the big and small screens.
``That's me right there,'' he said, pointing at a television commercial while we ate rice and ``miyeokguk'' in a local restaurant. The monsoon rain poured outside but he said it was ``better than the desert'' in China, where it was painful to eat sand grain-infested meals while shooting the TV soap ``The Great Queen Seondeok.'' He feels more comfortable with the local weather and food.
The 32-year-old's own documentary ``The Returnee,'' which is featured at the festival, shows how migrant workers often experience counter-culture shock when they return home after spending a dozen or so years in Korea.
The festival will travel around the country through September. ``It's a film festival for and of migrants so we thought we should migrate,'' he said. ``But we're actually pushing our limits, because frankly we're broke,'' he said with a worried look.
While public interest ― from regular moviegoers and volunteers offering their help ― has increased, state support ceased with the change in office. The good news however, is that more regional organizations are inviting the touring festival, and even international festivals including those in Japan and Hong Kong are making contact.
The event's main host Migrant Workers TV (MWTV) has a media academy where participants can learn all about filmmaking. The multilingual broadcaster produces projects from which quality works are chosen to feature in the festival.
Although local migrant communities and individual sponsors continue to support the festival, Alam expressed concern. ``I'm really worried about next year,'' he said. ``But I'm hoping that many guests will come and share our visions.''
Screenings begin Friday afternoon at IndieSpace, Spongehouse Joongang Cinema, Myeong-dong. The opening ceremony will be held at the venue on Saturday.
The film festival will tour Jinju Citizen's Media Center July 26; Namyangju Shalom House, Maseok, Aug. 15; Cheonan Media Center Bichae, Chungcheong Province, Aug. 22-23; Bucheon Migrant Worker's House, Aug. 30; Ansan Cultural Center, Sept. 4-5; Iksan Media Center, Sept. 5-6; and Gimpo Tongjindure Cultural Center, Sept. 13.
The closing ceremony, which has yet to be fixed, is slated to take place in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, with various performances and events to take place. Visit www.mwff.org (Korean, English) or call 070-8612-1418 for more information.
The festival welcomes support via Woori Bank: account number: 1005-501-291537 Migrant Workers TV.