Beyond Resilience: Why I Keep One Foot Planted in the Documentary Industry

By Jin Yoo-Kim

Editor’s Note: As part of Firelight Media’s Beyond Resilience series, we’re commissioning BIPOC nonfiction filmmakers to share reflections on their own challenges, strategies, and experiences of creating and distributing work during periods of social transformation. In this edition, Jin Yoo-Kim, an alum of Firelight Media’s Impact Producer Fellowship, shares her experience as a documentary producer on films including the acclaimed documentary Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust, which was a Firelight Media Impact Campaign Fund grantee in 2021.

When I was approached to write this reflection I was in a place of inner turmoil. I knew I should talk about all the amazing, inspiring, and positive work I’ve been doing with producing Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust. But all I could think about was how to leave this industry.

Recently I overheard someone criticize my casual communication style, my perceived lack of professionalism, and inexperience. (Forget all the years I spent training myself to fit into the patriarchy of white America.) That day, however, my accent, sentence structure, and appearance suddenly felt foreign and, well, unacceptable. How was I so easily dismissed?

In reality, I had just onboarded two assistants. I would soon join a cohort of the Women at Sundance Adobe Fellowship. I’m currently working on a docuseries I sold that stemmed from an idea I had while in the bathroom. I can rattle off these successes because at least I know how to count my blessings. But deep down, I still wonder what I came here for and why I have one foot out the door.

When Manzanar, Diverted premiered virtually, during the pandemic, at the 2021 Big Sky Film Festival, director Ann Kaneko and I didn’t expect our very Californian film to connect with audiences all over the country in such a profound way. However, our themes of forced removal, incarceration, environmental racism, and resource extraction proved to be universal. Audience reaction affirmed our belief in the importance of sharing intersectional stories. There’s a reason we don’t know each other’s stories, and our film aimed to change that.

Our first community screenings took place in Payahuunadü (aka Owens Valley), where Los Angeles gets its water. This is the same land on which Native Americans were forcibly removed and Japanese Americans were incarcerated. Many locals attended these screenings, saying it was important for Los Angeles residents to see the film. Angelenos have the power to do something about water extraction, while Payahuunadü residents must live with the consequences.

From this feedback, we hosted several Los Angeles community screenings. Before our broadcast on POV on July 18, we’ll be hosting a Day of Action on July 17 with several partners for a livestream video relay of local initiatives that will activate people across the country. We’re also launching an interactive website parallel to these efforts. Despite these successes, I found myself mired in the professional hurdles that many documentary producers struggle with. The work is important but the landscape is bleak.

After unfruitful emails to industry professionals demanding public crediting of producers in press materials, my anger fueled me to run for the West Coast Documentary Producers Alliance board position. While this decision deepens my commitment to this industry and makes it harder for me to leave, I cannot quiet my Korean fury in wanting respect for producers in this director-centric landscape. Perhaps if things change I can put down deeper roots.

I am not the eager, passionate, and idealistic producer anymore. However, my yearning to leave this industry and its toxicity reminds me that I still know how to spot injustice.

Recently I served as an impact mentor for the team behind the documentary Liquor Store Dreams at the Haverford x A-Doc Impact Lab. There, I met incredible organizations through the brain trusts. I saw organizers cry after watching meaningful documentaries. Surrounded by movement builders, cultural workers, and young people, I started to see beyond my own pity, anger, and self-doubt. The Lab had become something more than a retreat to talk about the films’ potential for social transformation. In just one weekend, I was internally transformed, again. A film’s message can extend beyond the four walls of a theater, can create a domino effect across the nation, and can truly transform the way we see each other, the way we embrace each other, the way we build with each other.

I didn’t want to voice the existential crisis I was having while I was knee-deep in developing a new docuseries, as well as producing the impact campaign for this feature documentary but, in fact, doing so made me realize that what I came here for is not the thing I was expecting to find. When I think of the challenges of creating and distributing work during periods of social transformation, I realize that I did it during periods of internal transformation. I am not the eager, passionate, and idealistic producer anymore. However, my yearning to leave this industry and its toxicity reminds me that I still know how to spot injustice. Sharing my internal struggle made me realize that I evolved my passion for documentaries into a profession and now it has become a practice. As long as I have the ability to trust my instincts and to continue building on the work I’ve done, I’ll lean on the one foot firmly planted inside the door and not the one that wants to step out.

JIN YOO-KIM is a Korean Bolivian American filmmaker who directed and produced for TAKE OUT WITH LISA LING. She co-produced A WOMAN’S WORK: THE NFL’S CHEERLEADER PROBLEM and K-TOWN ’92. She is currently developing her first food docuseries. She was an impact strategist for Waking Dreams and Blowin’ Up. She is a 2022 Women at Sundance Adobe Fellow, 2020 Sundance Creative Producers Fellow, and a 2017 Firelight Media Impact Producing Fellow.

To learn more about Firelight Media and the Beyond Resilience series, visit firelightmedia.tv.

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