When a sophomore in high school in Korea, Wonjung Bae made her first film using a Super 8 camera, edited together with a friend using two VHS players, then recording the audio separately on a cassette for the judges to play over the film. She submitted it to a contest sponsored by the YMCA and won first prize.
“It was called Grandfather, Father and Me, and it spanned the time starting in 1882 when Korea first opened to the West and ending the year I was born,” she says of the film.
Before she made her first film, she went to the library and picked up “Directing the Documentary,” by Michael Rabiger – the founder of the Documentary Center at Columbia College in 1988.
“It became my bible,” says Wonjung. “And I just googled his name and that’s how I first learned about Columbia.”
“If you do something meaningful and good, your film will be good,” she says of her film philosophy, and she couldn’t be more right. Bae won the gold medal in the Documnetary category at the 38th Student Academy Awards for her film Vera Klement: Blunt Edge.
It would be a few years before she applied. “I knew I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker,” she says. “But I didn’t want a bachelor’s in film; I wanted to do a major that would provide a solid basis for documentary film.” Wonjung headed off to college in South Korea, where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in political science.
Discouraged after graduation by the red tape involved in applying for producer positions in Korea, Wonjung decided to go abroad to further her career. She thought of Columbia and the impact that it had already had on her life with Michael Rabiger’s book, so she came to Chicago.
As she nears graduation after three years here at Columbia, she’s finished two films and is currently working on four more. While she’s nervous about the end of school, Wonjung is confident in her body of work.
“If you do something meaningful and good, your film will be good,” she says of her film philosophy, and she couldn’t be more right. Bae won the Gold Medal in the Documnetary category at the 38th Student Academy Awards for her film Vera Klement: Blunt Edge. The 11-minute biographical documentary is an intimate portrait of the prolific Chicago-based painter Vera Klement. It charts two interwoven events: the process of Klement creating a painting and the artist celebrating her 80th birthday.
“That’s why I like documentaries,” Wonjung says. “In narrative film, you know what the story is before you shoot it. With documentaries, you don’t know what the story is until after you shoot it.”
Her innovative techniques were instrumental in landing her an internship in Boston last summer, working for PBS’s Frontline, though her sheer enthusiasm helped her as well.
For another film, Wonjung tagged along with the cabinetmaker Kyle Kinser who used old-world carving techniques for his trade. She decided to use a Bolex camera, an ancient 16 mm monstrosity that produces gritty black and white images without sound. The result is an aesthetic that mirrors the outdated art of handcrafted cabinetry making. The film captures both his meticulously patient process and idiosyncratic personality.
Her innovative techniques were instrumental in landing her an internship in Boston last summer, working for PBS’s Frontline, though her sheer enthusiasm helped her as well. “While speaking with the interviewer over the phone, I was just so excited,” she says. “Eventually, she told me it sounded like I had the ‘documentary disease.’ I laughed and told her my mom said it was incurable!” The only intern from outside of Boston, Wonjung got to work with producers, technical editors, and other creatives all in one place.
As she finishes up her final year at Columbia, she thinks back to her experiences in the program. “I feel that there’s a lot of character here that other schools don’t have,” Wonjung says. “I’m lucky to have experienced all of it.”