Filmmaker Spotlight: Julie Ha

Julie Ha’s storytelling career spans more than two decades, in both ethnic and mainstream media, with a specialized focus on Asian American stories. She worked as an editor for 10 years at KoreAm Journal, a national Korean American magazine, and served as its editor-in-chief from 2011 to 2014, during which time she led award-winning coverage of the 20-year anniversary of the Los Angeles riots. She has written for the Hartford Courant in Connecticut, the Rafu Shimpo, a Los Angeles-based Japanese American newspaper, and the Los Angeles Times. Her feature stories have earned her awards from New American Media and the Society of Professional Journalists.


In 2018 the Korea Economic Institute of America honored her for her contributions to journalism. A graduate of UCLA, where she studied English-American Studies and worked as a student editor, she is a past board secretary of the Asian American Journalists Association, Los Angeles Chapter, and a founding board member of the late ’90s reboot of Gidra, a progressive Asian American magazine that originated in 1969. Free Chol Soo Lee, which made its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, is her first documentary film.


How does it feel to have a film showcased at the Sundance Film Festival?


Our whole team is thrilled, honored, and grateful to have had the “Free Chol Soo Lee” premiere at Sundance 2022. And the overwhelmingly positive reception that the film has received — that has moved us beyond words.


How did the film come about and how did you get involved?


My directing partner Eugene Yi and I have known of the Chol Soo Lee story for some time. I first learned about the case when I was 18 years old, after meeting my mentor, K.W. Lee, the journalist whose stories help trigger the Free Chol Soo Lee movement. But I would say that the idea to make this film was born when I attended Chol Soo Lee’s funeral in December 2014. I had flown to the Northern California service so I could write his obituary for a Korean American magazine, but I also wanted to be there to comfort K.W., who was devastated to have outlived the man he had helped save.


Clutching the walking stick that Chol Soo had carved for him, he cried out angrily, “He died 100 deaths in that goddamned living hell known as the California prison system, and even in freedom, he suffered a thousand deaths!” And then he questioned why, after all these years, this landmark movement that coalesced around this Korean street kid remained “underground” and unknown. Although at one time this movement had attracted thousands of supporters, as the symbol of their cause was being laid to rest, there were less than 50 people present.


Many of the people there were the activists who had come to Chol Soo’s aid 40 years earlier. And I felt a heaviness in that space that went beyond grief. I was struck by what they were saying: Even though they had devoted several years of their lives to freeing him, and some of them even helped him during his struggles after prison, they said that he did more for them than they ever did for him. That depth of humanity and that conflicted swirl of emotions moved me deeply.


When Eugene and I were talking about working together on a film in 2015, less than a year later, I mentioned this heavy feeling at the funeral because it stayed with me. I knew there was so much here that needed to be explored. As individuals who share a passion for telling complex, nuanced stories about Asian Americans, we decided to dig in. The Chol Soo Lee story beckoned to be told. It needed a release. We could not allow it to remain buried, especially because this story has so much resonance today.


What impact do you want to make with this project?


I think we tell stories to change the world, to remind us of our common humanity. These days, especially, we are so divided as a country and, in the face of this ongoing pandemic, sometimes it’s easy to feel hopeless. But if you take in this story and you find yourself moved as you learn about Chol Soo Lee, a man who suffered more pain than any person should have to endure and yet also was touched by some of the most compassionate, justice-seeking humans on the planet, then that creates an important opening. I personally have thought about how, even though in many ways Chol Soo’s life was quite tragic, maybe how the story “ends” is really up to those of us who are still living. After learning about this story, this history, how will we respond? Will we allow it to change us, inspire us to be more compassionate, to do our part in creating a more just society?


For myself, learning about this history first at age 18 changed how I saw the world and my role in it. I was inspired to become a journalist who seeks out the stories of those whom mainstream society often ignores or marginalizes, including Asian Americans. K.W. Lee has said that people without a history are hollow. Armed with the knowledge of this incredible history, of this unlikely movement that formed around a poor Korean street kid, new generations who learn about this case can keep carving out a meaningful and lasting legacy for Chol Soo Lee.


What do you enjoy most about being in the film industry?


It’s still completely new to me. What I enjoy most is being a storyteller, digging for the truth, and getting the chance to collaborate with others — film editors, producers, archival experts, script consultants, composers, animators — who are passionate about their work. I learned so much from them, and their passion inspired me.


How can the general public view the film?


We will be in theaters and film festivals throughout 2022, so please stay tuned for details (social media handles below). In 2023, “Free Chol Soo Lee” will have its broadcast premiere on PBS’ Independent Lens.

https://www.facebook.com/freecholsoolee/

https://www.instagram.com/fcsl_film/

@fcsl_film

https://www.fcsl-film.com/


What’s next for you?


I will continue to tell stories. I may return to my first love — writing — and have a couple of projects in mind. Filmmaking was a major aberration for me. But I spent six years working on “Free Chol Soo Lee,” and now my storytelling world has expanded to include a new medium. There was something magical about how everything came together for this film in the end. We’ll see if another subject beckons me like this one did.


What advice would you have for anyone who aspires to follow your career path?


I came into filmmaking completely unexpectedly, so I would say approach life with openness. I love telling stories, whether as a journalist or documentarian. It’s important to stay true to who you are and listen to your own inner drum. Sometimes the journey is long and hard, but it’s worth it.




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