Reclaiming the Negative by Mike Beech combines a powerful story with compelling images which creates a film of weighty, calm and compelling reflection.
The short documentary spends time with North Korean defector Eun-Ju Kim while she sits for a large format photographic portrait by photographer Tim Franco. She shares some of her experiences of moving to freedom and safety.
Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, roughly 31,000 North Koreans have defected from their home country to South Korea. But the numbers don’t tell each personal story.
Unperson is Tim Franco’s book of portraits of North Korean defectors, featuring a series of beautiful images, each with a story of depth and resilience.
For Eun-Ju, at the age of 11, her father and grandparents had died of starvation and her mother decided to escape the country with her children. It took nine years for them to be free.
“I generally find myself drawn to personal stories, which have some deeper resonances with larger societal issues and in the culture,” Mike Beech told D&CFilm. “Also if they can have some appealing visual aspect obviously that’s better.”
What Mike creates is a distinguished and mesmerising film of disciplined containment, both of the characters and in the storytelling.
“When you’re trying to distil huge parts of someone’s life down, inevitably there are going to be bits that you have to sand down or completely chop off. It was definitely a challenge. I speak some Korean, but doing it in a second language in a way that flows was really difficult. Luckily, my wife and the producer of this film, was able to be there through that process to help keep the story making sense, so that the story feels nicely told at a nice pace.
A big story to tell
“In a situation like this when you don’t have that much footage but you have a big story to tell, trying to find that balance between the two to keep it visually interesting and also do the story some kind of justice is definitely a real challenge. “
Part of the challenge was only having a day and a half to shoot.
“I had an idea of how I wanted it to feel,” said Mike. “But it was one of those things that had quite a lot of happy accidents.
“It’s a complicated story to tell, and people who have read about Eun-Ju in the book will know that it’s much more complicated than what’s in the film. It wasn’t possible to include everything from her story.
“When I was filming it I was already aware of the fact that we were going to need some slow motion, and we were going to need nicely framed shots that we were going to hold for a long time. The necessity of that gave it a slower, more considered feel that doesn’t reflect the rush that we shot in.”
Mike knew Tim Franco through commercial jobs they had worked on together, and he has always been intrigued by Tim’s use of medium format photography. A chance call while Mike was in South Korea led to talk of the project of portraits for the book and Mike hurriedly packed his film equipment to shoot.
“As Tim says in the film, these people are like superheroes,” said Mike. “The more I learn about Eun-Ju, the more impressed I am with what she’s gone through and how she’s lived her life.
“And then there’s the stunning artistry of Tim’s Franco’s photography. The photos that he’s been able to produce that we show at the end of the film are so powerful – they are so simple but they have real resonance.”
Reclaiming the Negative has had an excellent festival run, and been pegged a top Vimeo film, too. And it is part of the English Riviera Film Festival.
“When you are submitting film festivals it can get pretty expensive pretty quickly. And you have to think quite carefully about where to submit,” said Mike, whose game plan – pre-pandemic – was to attend the festivals when he could.
“At the festivals I’ve attended, I really enjoyed chatting with people and seeing other films and meeting other filmmakers. I went through the calendar and thought where would be good. And I would love to have been able to get out to that part of the country as well. It’s somewhere I’d like to explore more, spend some time in nature out there,” he said.
Ways of seeing
“I suppose in the current circumstances, people’s worlds in many cases have got a lot smaller. We’ve all had to be cooped up inside a lot more and we’ve had less access to a lot of things that might have been more mind-opening for us, and in that case I think artists are needed more than ever to help try to expand ways of seeing and push our ways of thinking in new directions. The idea is trying to show people how to see things in a new light, or approach things from a different angle that they wouldn’t come up with on their own,” said Mike.
“I think there will always be a role like that needed in society.”
See more of Mike Beech on his website
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