BIFF supporting letter from Stephanie Zacharek (Film Critic / Time Magazine)
I write this letter in support of Mr. Lee, whom I had the pleasure of meeting when I attended the Busan International Film Festival in October of 2015, as a juror in the New Currents section. I attended the festival just before I took my current job, as film critic at Time magazine, in New York; at the time, I was the chief film critic at the Village Voice. It was my first time attending the festival, and my first time in Asia, and I was immediately struck by many things: First, the beauty and friendliness of the city of Busan. But also the warmth and efficiency of the festival and the people who keep it running. The time I spent with the festival organizers, including Mr. Lee, made me realize that festivals like the one in Busan – a large, important festival that is famous around the world – don’t just “happen.” They take a great deal of planning, and require finding the right people to keep things running smoothly. But there also needs to be warmth and kindness there, as well as some broader, far-reaching vision. What really struck me about my time at the festival in Busan is how kindly I was treated by everyone there, and by their passion for what they do. I believe all of that radiates from the top, which is why I’m concerned to hear that Mr. Lee’s position as co-director of the festival may be in question.
As a critic working in America, I greatly enjoy attending festivals in other parts of the world. It is a way to understand the movie culture of a specific country: How people look at movies, and what movies they enjoy, can tell you something about them as individual human beings and as a group. But in the end, I believe the movies are a unifying experience. When we all watch a movie together, what usually strikes us is how connected, rather than disparate, we are. My experience at the Busan International Film Festival only reinforced that belief. And within that context, I feel it is imperative that the festival retain freedom of artistic expression. I met many people in Busan and made many new friends, not just from Korea but from other parts of Asia and the world as well. When people gather to look at movies at a festival, they are making a kind of statement, a unifying statement, and they are also asking questions: “What is this movie I’m looking at, and why is it here? Who chose it, and why?” Each festival is different, and the specific movies a festival’s organizers choose to program say a lot about how that festival is viewed by its attendees, and by the world. That doesn’t mean all the movies are good, all the time. But often movies are chosen for a festival because there is some interesting artistic spark, or because that movie has a specific point of view about a cultural, historical, or political event. To look at movies is to look at the world. If a festival organizer or programmer’s vision is limited, that festival will be limited. Attending the festival in Busan in 2015 expanded my ideas of cinema and its place in the world. This is exactly what you want a festival to do! It is an experience I will always remember.
That is why I’m concerned that Mr. Lee’s job may be in jeopardy. As I have said, I believe that the mood and tone of an organization is set by the person at the top, and my sense is that Mr. Lee’s guidance has made the Busan International Film Festival the exciting and wide-ranging event that it is. Mr. Lee has clearly brought a lot of thought and passion and wisdom to his job at the festival, and also a great deal of warmth and kindness. I met Mr. Lee only briefly in my time at the festival, but in my many, many dealings with others – from programmers to coordinators to volunteers – I could sense the special energy of this festival. The Busan International Film Festival opened my eyes to many new things, and I felt very welcome in a part of the world that was wholly new to me. I urge you to consider the extent of Mr. Lee’s contribution to what makes this festival so wonderful, and to its reputation in other parts of the world.
With kind regards from New York,
N.B. This article is also available in Japanese.