My name is Kelley Katzenmeyer. I'm an American filmmaker and Columbia University student currently living in Seoul. I also used to be an exchange student in a Korean high school, participating in the US Department of State's NSLI-Y program. When I was a high school senior, I was nominated as a Presidential Scholar in the Arts, meeting President Obama in 2010. Currently, I'm working on a documentary film about Korean high school life-- what it's like to live in South Korea as a teenager, and the pressures some students face to academically excel.
When I was an exchange student in a competitive Korean high school, I noticed some of my classmates went through significant amounts of stress worrying about how well they'd do on Sunung and what college they'd be able to get into. I watched as they slept only four or five hours a night, doing study hall until 9:30pm (and some until 11:45pm). Even some of my most strong-willed friends suffered due to the pressure, crying at night and losing their sense of self-worth. On more than one occasion a friend would call me on the verge of suicide, and I would have to talk them down. These things that I witnessed as an exchange student in Korea really shocked me. Education is something that is supposed to nurture students and help them grow, but the societal pressure to succeed in South Korea is so strong sometimes it can drive students to take their own lives.
After witnessing the tough experiences my classmates endured, I decided I wanted to try my best to make a documentary film on the subject, to help students feel more comfortable talking about their feelings and the way these pressures affect them. Our team has spent the past few years working on this film, and now it's almost done! The film follows four students (three high school seniors and one "jaesu" student) through the 100 days before Sunung. The four students kept video diaries throughout their experiences, and the way they reveal themselves and their emotions in the film is truly moving. I think upon seeing the film, many students across the country will feel heard, that they're not alone in their experiences, and find a new strength within themselves.
All in all, the film hopes to alleviate the pressure students face, not just in Korea, but also in other countries with similarly competitive educational systems. We hope the film will let them know they're not alone in what they're feeling, and help foster positive and productive conversations between students, parents, and teachers about mental health.
Our film was featured on the SBS evening news a while back, you can see an excerpt of it here:
While 90% of the film is documentary, we're also hoping to add in some "re-enactment" scenes. The style of these particular scenes are a little unique to our film and requires a bit of explanation.
As you may know, some documentary films have re-enactment scenes. For example, if a documentary is about a particular event in history, the director may hire actors to re-enact this event. If the documentary is about ancient Egypt, perhaps the production team may recreate a set to look like ancient Egypt, hire actors to wear related costumes, etc.
For our film, it's happening in modern day, so we don't technically need re-enactments. However, we wanted to bring some art into the film, and show that their IS so much amazing creativity and talent happening among young people in Korea. So we came up with this unique idea of working with local musicians and dancers to create artistic interpretations/surreal re-enactments of what the real students are experiencing in the film. For example, when the main character is hopeful about his dream of getting into Yonsei like his uncle, we feature an uplifting, hopeful dance scene. (With original choreography by upcoming local dancers, and original music by local young musicians.) Then later, when the student begins to become stressed and burdened by his test scores, we feature a darker (and equally honest) scene reflecting that. We're finding in screen-tests that students are really connecting to this form of story telling-- dance and music mixed with documentary. This style of filmmaking really seems to be helping students open up and bring about healing.
To film these unique scenes of course, we're looking for a high school to film in. We did have one location, but the school needs to do some construction that month so we can no longer use it. So now we're trying to find a new location within the next few weeks!
The dates we're looking to film would be Sunday, August 12th, and Saturday, August 18th. I know a lot of you talented Seoul filmmakers out there also have teaching jobs or have taught in the past-- if you have any close connections to schools in Seoul or the surrounding area, that may be willing to let us use a classroom on a weekend, please let us know! (It's possible a hagwon/private academy classroom may also work, depending on its size and how it looks.) Anyone out there who is able to help us convince a school to give us permission to film on August 12th and 18th, we'll give you a Producer credit in the film, two tickets to the film's premiere and party, as well as 100,000won as a thank-you finder's fee. Our film also does have a small budget which allows us to pay the school a small fee for the time in their facility, as well pay a teacher or administrator to supervise our filming if needed.
All that said, we're also looking for any crew who may want to volunteer on set for a day or two (particularly a talented AC who can do remote follow focus), a make-up artist, a few clothing items from the 1950's, and also just any volunteers who may want to drop by and bring snacks or food and cheer on the sweet and talented young cast of students putting their hearts into this film. It's definitely a film for the community by the community! :)
We're also looking for some pop and/or rock musicians to write an uplifting original song for the ending credits.
If you think you may be able to help out, please send me an e-mail! Also, if you just want to be updated on the film as it progresses, let me know that as well and I'll put you on our e-mail list. ;)
Much love Seoul film community,
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