Divided Families: Profile of Filmmaker/Physician Jason Ahn

“It just started off as an idea and passion,” says filmmaker and physician Jason Ahn, 30, of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Divided Families,” the documentary that Ahn co-directed and co-produced, tells the stories of Korean American immigrants who have been separated from family members in North Korea for more than fifty years as a result of the Korean War, which divided the country into north and south. Through recording their histories, Ahn seeks to raise awareness of divided families and to advocate for reunion.

Early childhood experiences may have instilled in Jason a strong sense of social justice and a desire to advocate for the Korean American community. Ahn recalls his early childhood in Los Angeles’ Koreatown: “My family didn’t have much growing up. We just lived month to month. There were a lot of homeless people on the streets. I remember the ice cream truck coming by and that would be our treat for the day. Even though we didn’t have much, there was a Korean American community, and we went to church and felt supported.”

When the L.A. riots, or Sa-I-Gu, occurred in 1992, Ahn was nine years old. “We would go to the HK Market for groceries and I remember ajussis with rifles on the rooftop and National Guard troops patrolling the area. I remember watching the news and seeing people breaking into stores, looting, lighting things on fire,” he says.

As a U.C. Berkeley student, Ahn became involved in Poetry for the People, where he became immersed in storytelling through poetry. He also enrolled in a medical anthropology class taught by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a renowned expert in the field, where he learned about ethnographic inquiry and the art of interviewing while conducting a project on traditional Chinese medicine.

After graduating with a dual degree in history and molecular cell biology, Ahn was awarded a Fulbright to Korea. He conducted an ethnographic study of structural violence and health among North Korean defectors living in South Korea. During this project, he was able to meet his mother’s cousin who was a defector.

Interested in pursuing medical and humanitarian work in North Korea, Ahn met with Dr. Stephen Linton at the Eugene Bell Foundation. Through Linton, Ahn became connected to the organization Saemsori and its spokesperson, Ms. Chahee Lee Stanfield. Ahn became inspired by Saemsori’s efforts to pass legislation at the U.S. congressional level to advocate for formal mechanisms of reunion for divided families with relatives in North Korea.

After completing his Fulbright fellowship, Ahn enrolled in a joint degree program in medicine and public administration at Harvard. He was interested in studying global health systems on a broader, macro level. After beginning his medical studies, Ahn continued thinking about the issue of divided families.

“Why wasn’t the issue more well known? I was reflecting on my experience and continued learning a lot about North Korea through social issues documentaries. It was a new mode of education for our generation. People are increasingly passionate consumers of information with so much multimedia out there. What’s the fastest way to get this message out there and reach the most amount of people? I thought a documentary would be best way to do it,” says Ahn.

He felt a strong sense of urgency to advocate for the issue, as many divided family members are elderly individuals in their seventies and eighties. Ahn also felt a personal connection to the issue, as his grandmother’s last wish was to reunite with her younger sister, who was in North Korea. His grandmother had received a letter from her sister but was unable to connect with her before she passed away of stomach cancer. “We had to send funeral pictures to her sister,” says Ahn.

Except for creating a short film for a class on Spanish cinema, Ahn did not have any training in film, but reasoned that it could be accomplished by coordinating a team of experienced documentarians. Several of the fellows he met during the Fulbright were social activists working in film and media, and he reached out to them for assistance. Ahn created a website and filmed some initial interviews with assistance from collaborators. Then, he was introduced Eugene Chung, who became his co-director and co-producer, through mutual friends.

Although they were both undergraduates at U.C. Berkeley during the same period, they were not acquaintances. Chung, who has a background in finance and worked in private equity, had traveled to North Korea on a humanitarian aid project and was interested in the issue of divided families. Ahn and Chung met in Boston while Chung was in town for his Harvard business school interview.

“We went to Taiwan Café for lunch. We started the meal as strangers and finished the meal as partners,” says Ahn.

They organized a fundraiser at the Circle nightclub in New York City, where they were able to raise approximately $25,000. “It was the most exhilarating time,” says Ahn. “It was executed so well and professionally with our volunteer team. There were a lot of Korean Americans but it was also our own personal networks, including non-Korean Americans. We had a silent auction and a cover at the door. The owner of Circle nightclub was super generous and donated an open bar. Auction items were also donated, including dresses from Korean American designer Doori Chung.”

A second fundraiser was held in Los Angeles, which raised an additional $5,000. Last spring, they launched a Kickstarter campaign, which raised about $22,000. With additional funds from private donors, they were able to raise a total of $60,000 for the film.

“In terms of producing the film, it was a learning process along the way. I hadn’t taken something on like this before. Coordinating volunteers, camera people, technical people, lighting, technical side, editing, building relationships with our interviewees and the trust that comes with that. Having a production team to organize when and where to shoot, interviews, the budget. It was a lot of learning as we went,” says Ahn.

Strong collaborations were key to the film’s success. The film was a collective effort with 90% of the work conducted by volunteers. There were approximately sixty to seventy volunteers throughout the life of the project.

“Most of the volunteers were either from our own personal networks or people who really strongly believed in the project and wanted to get on board. Many were looking for ways to give back to the community. I recruited my high school and college friends. One of my med school friends was a strong advisor. Eugene would meet people at events and recruit people. We posted calls for volunteers on websites and university listservs. We had an open door policy. We would take anyone willing to help. We’d find out what needed to be done and match their skills with our needs. It was truly a collective effort,” says Ahn.

“One person I must mention is Ki Jang Min. She found me on Facebook and was interested in volunteering. We had a Skype interview. At that time, we really needed a transcription and translation team. Most interviews were in Korean. I’ve still never met her in person. We’ve Skyped along the way. She recruited six or seven people for a team from her network to transcribe and translate interviews, which was very helpful for the post-production editing process. She was in Korea and found us online. She headed the transcription and translation team. My uncle in Utah also helped with transcriptions as well. He did it by hand for some of the footage.”

Twenty-one people were interviewed for the film. This included divided family members in New Jersey, New York, D.C., Chicago, Utah, and Los Angeles, as well as experts, historians, and Korean War veterans. While Ahn conducted the majority of the interviews, volunteers also stepped in.

Ahn notes, “Initially, we found interviewees through Saemsori. They were taking applications in case there would be formal reunions. Local Korean newspapers got wind of what we were doing, people would read them and want to tell us their stories. It became a snowball method.”

“Most were very willing to share. They may not have had the opportunity to share their stories with their children. Everyone was busy just trying to make a living in a new country, being an immigrant. They held a lot of regret and pain and suffering through their entire lives. They were able to finally share this with people who were interested. They appreciated us taking the time to record their stories.”

Although the South Korean government offers reunification opportunities for divided families, many Korean Americans have obtained U.S. citizenship. They are ineligible to participate in the reunification program, as the South Korean government prioritizes its own citizens.

Ahn describes his first interviewee, “Mr. Che is your average working class guy in Queens. He was the eldest son. He left on his own, left behind siblings in North Korea. He paid $10,000 to a person in China who said he’d put them in touch with his family members but it was fake. The supposedly family member didn’t even know the family members’ names. It’s a pretty common experience. People at that age are willing to do whatever it takes to have their last wish to see their family. They’re willing to take that risk. They have such an emotional investment in the issue.”

“Dr. Linton talks about other similar cases in our film. Many Korean Americans were able to go to North Korea through organizations in the U.S. and Canada. However, there’s a fear of going through these orgs. What’s the U.S. government going to think? Is it going to hurt my children’s futures if they find out I have family ties to North Korea or that I am going through a North Korean organization? Even if they overcome the fear and decide to go through the organizations, there’s no real guarantee. You could pay thousands of dollars to go to North Korea and not meet your family. There are also fears about whether you’ll be forced to stay in North Korea and not be able to leave.”

Jason Ahn ImageAhn reflects on making his first film while he was a student at Harvard: “From when I first started, the film took five years, from pre-production, production, and post-production. Let’s just say it was a very tough few years, very hard. We did the bulk of the filming during the summer between my second year of medical school and when I started the Kennedy School. I had a summer to work on this. At the time, I was studying for my Step 1 board exam, the medical students’ dreaded exam that supposedly determines your future.”

“We had a January term, a couple weeks off where we can take a class or whatever and I did more interviews and production then. Throughout the Kennedy school, I did a lot of work for the film-weekly conference calls, a lot of emails, a lot of org management. We had an executive team of producers at that time. My grades at Kennedy suffered a bit but I was ok with that. I was learning public administration while doing a nonprofit film project so it was an amazing coupling.”

“Then my third year of med school came around. That itself, is such a tough time, first interacting with patients and being part of the medical team, not knowing what you’re supposed to be doing. I was going on rounds in the hospital. Filming would be on hold for a bit. Eugene took care of some editing while I was in my third year of medical school. By end of that time, we realized we needed to raise money again to hire an editor. It’s been a constant thing. Every day I’d think about it, come up with goals, & hit those goals every week. It was a lot of perseverance and faith.”

Ahn credits his friends and family for providing ongoing encouragement throughout the project. “Although they weren’t involved in the project, they could see the developments from a third party point of view and they were very encouraging. Faith in God also gave me strength.” His family was initially a bit hesitant.

Ahn says, “I had to keep reassuring my family that I was indeed going to finish medical school and be a doctor. When I told my mom I was going to the Kennedy school and producing the film, she said, ‘Why? Aren’t you going to be a doctor?’ For her generation, this was nothing new. It’s an old issue-we all know about it. I said actually, we all don’t know enough about it. Once she saw the screenings and understood what we were doing, she was very supportive. She really cares about the divided families issue. My brother’s always been supportive as well.”

Reflecting on his journey of working on the film, Ahn says, “I wished every Korean American who is second or third generation would try to learn about their parents’ and grandparents’ stories. It’s fascinating. It informs who we are and where we go forward in the future as a community. I’m really proud of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations for being survivors and overcoming such suffering that they’ve experienced in a country that’s new to them. They are giving us opportunities here that we would never have elsewhere. ”

“I’m also proud of our team. We’ve come a very long way, all 60-65 volunteers who’ve really spent their time, however big or small. I’m very proud of them. I’m very thankful for our donors, our supporters, moral supporters, people who’ve prayed for us and have donated time & money. I hope we can really make an impact.”

divided familiesKoreanAmericanStory.org, in partnership with the Korea Society, will host a free, private screening of “Divided Families” on Wednesday, January 22, 2014 at 6:30 p.m. at the Korea Society, 950 Third Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY, 10022. To reserve your spot: CLICK HERE

For more information on the “Divided Families” film: http://www.dividedfamilies.com/

jason ahn18-sm-sqJason is the director and executive producer of the Divided Families Film. While a Fulbright scholar to Korea, Jason Ahn became interested in the divided families through Saemsori, an organization working towards formal family reunions between Korean Americans and Koreans living in North Korea. The necessity for a historical record of divided families and the power in showing stories through film inspired him to embark upon the Divided Families Film. Jason is interested in the intersection of film and social change.

He is currently an emergency medicine resident doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital. He is a graduate of Harvard Medical School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He earned his BA from the University of California, Berkeley. In the future, he hopes to make a difference as a practitioner of global health and social medicine.