Dai Sil Kim-Gibson’s Sa-I-Gu (1993, 3/4″ video 36 minutes) is a documentary focusing on the 1992 Los Angeles Riots from the perspective of Korean women shopkeepers. Broadcast on PBS’s POV September 1993, this documentary takes these women’s personal stories and explores race relations, poverty, and the immigrant experience as well as the media’s portrayal of the event as a Black v. Korean conflict. This film will be part of the Korean American Film Festival New York, which is largely documentary heavy. Dai Sil Kim-Gibson came to the US in 1962 to pursue graduate studies and after receiving a Ph.D. in religion from Boston University and teaching at Mount Holyoke College she began a career working at National Endowment for the Humanities and was director of the media program of the New York State Council on the Arts. In 1988 she left to pursue a film career and has since produced a series of provocative and important documentary works. The KAFFNY will screen Sa-I-Gu: From Korean Women’s Perspectives, Wet Sand: Voices from LA (2004), Olivia’s Story, directed by Charles Burnett (1999), A Forgotten People: The Sakhalin Koreans (1995) Motherland (2006) and Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women(1999). You can find the info here.
The LA Riots are a hazy memory from my youth spent in the country. I remember fire and guns, people on buildings looking scared and determined, and people as equally determined smashing windshields. It was so far out of my frame of reference it was totally alien. It was only later, exposed to rap in high school, that I encountered one extreme response. Later in a Korean Diaspora class there was a much more rounded exploration of the factors leading into this event. However Kim-Gibson’s documentary is something much more personal and hit me in an emotional way that no other encounter with this tragic event has before. By focusing on the personal experiences of Korean women caught in Sa-I-Gu (literally in Korean 4-2-9 or 4/29 following the Korean way of naming large events by the numbers of the date) the event was explored in a way that was raw and emotional that was missing from my understanding of it.
“I thought America was perfect, since she helped others abroad. After the riots, I feel there is a huge hole in America.” This comes from one of the women interviewed and essentially this documentary is about the death in some ways of the American dream. These families came to America for a better life, either for themselves or their children, and often sacrificed much to come here. Some who came for their children gave up lives of relative comfort for one in an alien landscape of South Central LA that was not at all the America that we are so clever at packaging and selling to the rest of the world. They thought they would be in a land of people with blonde hair and big noses (to paraphrase) and instead were faced with the reality of the largely Latino and African-American neighborhood. I want to be clear here, as is the documentary at the beginning, that this film is not standing testament to the whole of the Korean-American experience nor the experience during the riots. This is a personal film about the cost and fear and confusion that the breakdown of the American dream and system caused in people who moved here believing that this would be a beautiful country (the Chinese characters for America used in Korea mean exactly that) and worked hard to make it so. Then one day seemingly without warning to some of them they found this:
We range from people who are confused and angry and lash out to say that the government should have controlled the black population better. We have people who deny it was a Korean-Black conflict but rather a Black-White conflict with Koreans in the middle and really even then it was a poor-rich conflict. We have people who are scared and angry and confused at the government, the country, the looters, and themselves. We see a community organizing to pick up the pieces having shouldered about half of the total property loss. We see people angry that the police walled off Beverley Hills but refused to do anything as people fired at them, broke into their stores, and looted their life’s work away from them. This is a film filled with anger and confusion that is raw and sometimes offensive to a politically correct crowd, but above all it is honest. It can’t be any other way really, we see them trying to pick the pieces up from their lives and figure out what to do next. Perhaps the most emotional for me was Mrs. Lee who lost her son Edward Jae Song Lee, shot by a Korean who thought he was a looter, the only Korean of 53 people to die in the violence. This puts a human face on the tragedy and the impact was an emotional one for me.
We also see the steps taken to move forward, to build something from this rubble. At the Association of Korean American Victims an elderly lady clearly and pointedly stares at the camera and says “I want to die demonstrating.” This document still carries power years later, especially now with the economy and the struggle for a voice going on around the world. Kim-Gibson gave these women a voice that will resonate for years to come, and I urge people to go see this.
The Dai Sil Kim-Gibson Retrospective with Sa-I-Gu: From Korean Women’s Perspectives, Wet Sand: Voices from LA, Olivia’s Story, directed by Charles Burnett is showing Saturday 3/19, 5-8PM, at the Chelsea Clearview Cinemas w/Q&A tickets can be bought here.