The Making of 'I Am Sun Mu' – an Interview with Director Adam Sjoberg
Filmmaker and photographer Adam Sjoberg has been working for the last two and a half years on a new documentary about our friend and renowned resettled North Korean artist Sun Mu. The film, titled I Am Sun Mu, follows Sun Mu as he prepares a new exhibition. We have known Adam for a while—he directed Danny From North Korea—but he is also known for previous works such as Shake the Dust and many other internationally-recognized films.
Check out our interview below with Adam on his most recent documentary.
When did you begin working on I Am Sun Mu?
Justin Wheeler introduced me to Sun Mu in January of 2013. We had dinner and discussed the possibility of doing a documentary about his life and work. Because Sun Mu can’t show his face and has to go to great lengths to protect his identity, he was understandably careful about getting involved in a feature film about his life. However, because of the long-term relationship he’s built with LiNK, and my approach to filmmaking, he decided it was a good partnership. I’m super thankful that he said yes. A year after we initially met, he was invited to China to show his work in a solo exhibition. This was an unprecedented event for a North Korean artist—and a bold decision on the part of the curator. I decided this was a perfect opportunity to film him and use the exhibit as a narrative arc with which to tell the rest of his story.
What was your favorite part of the process?
The whole filming process has been a joy to work on. I loved some of the quieter moments of filming it when it would just be Sun Mu and me in his studio. He would be painting or working away on a piece, and I would just be a “fly on the wall” filming. That collaborative effort was really inspiring. I’ve also loved working with a team of creatives that are so talented. Mariana Blanco, our editor, has been crucial to getting the film completed. Ryan Wehner has been making some beautiful animations of Sun Mu’s work that really help bring Sun Mu’s back-story to life. And composer Joel P. West has been working on a unique and beautiful thematic score to round out the film. I love working as a team with people that inspire me.
What are some cool things you learned while you filmed?
There has been so many things that I’ve learned. I already had a basic knowledge of the history of the Korean peninsula, but I’ve learned even more about it—as well as the nuances of the Kim’s rule and influence on every portion of North Korean life. Hearing Sun Mu discuss his life in North Korea, as well as his process of “un-brainwashing” after he left was fascinating. But most importantly, developing a friendship with Sun Mu over the last two years has helped me see past the politics and stereotypes surrounding the issue. Part of the beauty of Sun Mu’s paintings is that they don’t sit in any particular political space. He misses his homeland and longs for a more idealized, free North Korea. His work reflects his torn heart: He is not North Korean or South Korean. He’s simply Korean, which is why so many of his paintings focus on the idea of reunification, which is often seen as an archaic solution to the future of the two Koreas. But I don’t think he’s painting about reunification because he’s sure it will happen, only that he hopes it will.
What was most challenging for you with creating the documentary?
I don’t want to give too much away, but things did not go as expected at Sun Mu’s exhibit. That created safety and security challenges. Beyond that, making a feature-length film is a tough job. There are so many parts of Sun Mu’s life that I wish I could tell. The more I filmed him, the more I wanted to include. But in the end, you have to decide what stories push the overall narrative forward and keep people interested. It was tough to lose some scenes, but there are always DVD extras!
Do you have a favorite scene?
Can I pick two? My favorite is probably a scene where Sun Mu describes the day he escaped. It’s mostly a compilation of his paintings brought to life with animation. Afterwards, Sun Mu sings a song while playing the guitar that he used to play back in North Korea. Another favorite scene is of Sun Mu painting with his daughters. He then describes a couple of paintings he made of them—one of which is of his oldest daughter holding a “letter that cannot be sent” to her grandmother. It’s powerful.
Why do you create documentaries? Why did you choose to do this one in particular?
I create documentaries because I have a passion for helping people tell their stories. I love the genre because of how it opens up people’s eyes to the world. Ever since getting involved with Liberty in North Korea back in 2010, I’ve been interested in this issue. The crisis in North Korea is often overlooked, thought of only in terms of its politics, and is considered by many to be a complicated “cause” in which to be involved. I’ve worked with commercial brands that haven’t wanted to align themselves with LiNK because their manufacturing is in China. But it’s one of the greatest ongoing tragedies in the world today—and I’m proud to be associated even a little bit with what LiNK is fearlessly doing.
Who is this documentary for?
Hopefully it’s for everyone. We tried to make a film that is not just about North Korea, but about a person—an artist. It has a little bit of everything in it: a few laughs, a story of family, a story of escape, and a story of an artist trying to make it. Sun Mu is a very poetic person, and so I think people will be drawn in by his narrative.
What are you most excited for people to see in the documentary?
The climax of the film is pretty exciting and emotional, but I’m most excited for people just to get to know Sun Mu.
Why should people watch this? Why is this important?
As I’ve mentioned above, this is an issue that is often only seen in the media regarding it’s politics, or else in comedies or shock-docs. I want people to see a more human side: to not walk away thinking of the Kims, but of the many people in North Korea who live under one of the most oppressive regime in the world. Not just of their plight, but of their potential.
Where/when can someone see the documentary?
There will be a website up soon with more information. It will take some time before we secure international and domestic distribution. Stay tuned to what LiNK is doing. We’ll try to keep everyone in the loop once it’s out for the world to see!
UPDATE: January 2017! We're excited to announce that I Am Sun Mu is now available on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and other video on demand platforms! Watch it, rate it, and share!
Want some of Sun Mu's art for your home? Check out the Sun Mu canvas prints on the LiNK Shop!
URGENT: North Korean Refugees At Risk of Forced Repatriation
A Call for Advocacy and Action from LiNK’S CEO, Hannah Song
There are currently large numbers of North Korean refugees being held in detention in China, including a group of individuals who were caught earlier this year while trying to escape through LiNK’s networks. As of last month, the Chinese government has started forcibly sending them back to North Korea where they are at risk of torture, imprisonment in horrific forced labor camps, and even execution.
This comes after the North Korean government has slowly reopened the country’s borders. During the pandemic, extreme lockdowns and increased security effectively brought forced repatriations to a temporary halt. At the same time, Chinese authorities continued to arrest and detain North Korean defectors, waiting for the opportunity to send them back. UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean human rights, Elizabeth Salmon, estimated this number to have reached 2000 people.
On October 13th, in response to media reports that Chinese authorities had forcibly repatriated around 600 North Korean refugees, the South Korean government confirmed that “a large number” of North Koreans had been sent back.
We are deeply concerned about this situation and the imminent repatriation of more North Korean refugees, including specific individuals we have confirmed are currently in detention. We are closely monitoring these cases and continue to advocate directly with 10 other governments, the EU, and the UN on this issue. In September, LiNK also signed an open letter to China’s President Xi alongside civil society organizations, calling for humanitarian protection for North Korean refugees.
Right now, this issue needs more attention. The Chinese government needs to know that the world is watching and that North Korean refugees must be treated with humanity and dignity.
The Chinese government has 276 embassies and consulates representing their interests around the world, more than any other country. Please contact the embassy or consulate where you live, and also the Chinese mission to the UN, through email and social media to send a simple but direct message of concern and support for North Korean refugees.
Here's What You Can Do:
Copy, and feel free to edit, the template letter below, and email it to the Chinese Foreign Ministry via the Chinese embassy or consulate where you live, and also the Chinese mission to the UN:
Template Letter to Chinese Foreign Minister:
Twitter (X) Users:
Additionally, you can tweet at the Chinese Foreign Ministry using this template tweet:
There’s a lot going on in the world right now. The Chinese government is taking advantage of this diverted attention to quietly send North Koreans back, and it will quietly continue to do so. This is the time where we need strength in numbers and Allies around the world to clearly and firmly call out their inhumane actions.
Thank you for standing with the North Korean people.