An Interview With Steven Dhoedt, Director of “Reach for the SKY”

We talk with Steven Dhoedt about his documentary on the Suneung, South Korea's all-important college entrance exam.

By , 26 Oct 16 00:53 GMT
Steven Dhoedt, director of Reach for the SKY.
Steven Dhoedt, director of Reach for the SKY.

Recently we had the opportunity to talk with Steven Dhoedt, director of Reach for the SKY (which we reviewed two weeks ago).

Reach for the SKY (currently available for VOD streaming) chronicles the Suneung — South Korea’s all-important college entrance exam — through the eyes of three students, their families, and a celebrity English teacher.

Dhoedt shares with us his experiences making the film and observations of Korea’s education system… read on for more!

You’re originally from, and studied film in, Belgium — how did you find your way to Korea?

In 2009, I was on a flight to Seoul, Korea, for the first time ever. I was making a documentary about online virtual worlds, MMORPGs, online gaming. Obviously, South Korea played a big role in these things. There was Lineage, a videogame which was a major success and had a huge audience (long before World of Warcraft) and there was such a thing as CyWorld, the Facebook avant-la-lettre. I think one out of five people in South Korea had a CyWorld account at the time. The company doesn’t exist anymore, but it was huge at the time.

So I ended up in Korea because I wanted to interview Jae Kae Song, the lead game designer of Lineage, shoot some footage of people doing business through CyWorld and also check out this phenomenon of kids making a living playing video games. The latter eventually became the stage for my first feature documentary, a film about eSports and professional Starcraft players titled State of Play. And from that film, the idea for Reach for the SKY pretty much grew organically.

What do you mean by grew organically? How’d State of Play inspire you to make a film about the Suneung?

Posters for Reach for the SKY and State of Play.
Posters for Reach for the SKY and State of Play.

When I was making State of Play, I interviewed a lot of professional and semi-professional video gamers. The majority were between 15 and 21 years old. When I asked them why they pursued this career, I usually got a very similar answer: they wanted to escape the school system in Korea. They thought it was very hard and very suffocating — which was quite peculiar, because the professional gaming world in Korea is very competitive and very harsh itself. So I thought: even if they enjoy gaming and they’re willing to give it a go, why is it that everyone brings up the school system? That’s what made me look into the Korean educational system and that’s how I discovered the existence of Suneung, a competition which was way more fierce than any gaming tournament could ever be.

How did you go about finding the three students featured in Reach for the SKY, and why those students in particular?

From the very beginning, we wanted to have students from different backgrounds in the film. We created profiles for possible characters. We wanted to have a high school senior, someone who took the exam for the first time. We wanted to have a repeater. We wanted to have someone who was a repeater in a boarding school (the Sparta school you see in the film). We wanted to have someone whose parents were Christian. We wanted someone whose family was Buddhist. Many different traits, but these were the things we were looking for when we interviewed potential candidates.

Finding these people was a very long process and probably the biggest challenge of the entire production. First we had to find a school that was willing to accept a film crew. That took a while. For the boarding (Sparta) school you see in the film it took over a year to get permission. Many schools were skeptical and were (rightly so) afraid that our presence would interfere with the preparations and the studying of the students. But eventually we did find two places were we could film and they turned out to be perfect. Once we had permission from the principal, we put out a notice to high school seniors, explaining our project and a request for potential candidates. We organized short interview sessions with students that wanted to be a part in this and surprisingly we had a rather big turn-out in every school.

Based on these interviews we decided on the students we wanted to follow during the shooting. We ended up following five kids of which three eventually made the final cut. The decision to choose certain kids was very much a gut decision. Some were more outgoing, some had very mature ideas about education. It’s hard to explain why one student seemed more appropriate than the other, but very often you just know who to go for.

Once we found the students who actually wanted to be a part of the film, we of course had to get the permission of the parents. We were dealing with minors and there was no way that we could do a film of this scope without the permission of the parents. Luckily a lot of the families understood what we were trying to do. Some of them saw it as a good opportunity for their child, others thought it would be a great memento of an important period in their child’s life. However, one family declined and decided they didn’t want to be any part of it. And we respected that, because there was no point otherwise. Reach for the SKY is as much about the students as it is about their families and surroundings.

One of the girls (Hyunha) in the film talks about how she eventually wants to be Minister of Education, in order to reform the education system. How often did you meet students who were adamant about wanting a different system? Or were most students just resigned to the status quo?

Hyuna from Reach for the SKY.
Hyunha from Reach for the SKY.

I think Hyunha was perhaps exceptional in the fact that she was very idealistic. I think she abandoned the idea of becoming the Minister of Education quite fast, but it does show where her intentions lie. She really wants to be in education, she wants to be a primary school teacher and she hopes that she can plant some seeds for change at an early age. I also think that’s where the real possibility for change lies, because this is a system that can’t be changed overnight. It’s a generational thing and the more young people that stand up and say: we don’t want our children to go through something like this, the bigger the possibility that this climate of rote learning, point-grabbing and stress can be replaced for a healthier way of learning.

The majority of the students, as well as the parents and the teachers, realize that the South Korean educational system is problematic. But they don’t see a way out. Many of them have resigned to the status-quo because they feel they are powerless. Life goes on and they still want to have the possibility of a promising career and eventually a good life. So they endure, because that’s what everybody else seems to be doing too.

The Suneung prep process appears rather disciplined — for instance in the boarding school they study past midnight and have regimented wake-up times. As you implied earlier, the presence of a film crew could potentially distract from that environment. Were there actually ever issues with filming interfering with students’ studying, or accommodations you proactively made with that issue in mind?

Yes, definitely. Even if we were focusing on only three students, of course we were shooting in the school playgrounds, inside classrooms, dormitories, etc. We always made it clear to all the students that if – for some reason – they didn’t want to be filmed, they would just have to come and tell us. There were very few who actually objected. One girl really didn’t want to be filmed, so in order to make it easier for the whole crew (we had several camera operators throughout the production), we agreed she would wear a bright yellow hoodie on the days we filmed. That way we could easily spot her and turn the camera away if needed.

We were aware from the very beginning that our presence could also be used as an excuse later on when students received their results and didn’t do well. When you have to tell your parents that you didn’t do well on the exam, it’s easy to start looking for scapegoats. And the presence of a film crew could easily be used for that. That’s why we tried to be as little intrusive as possible. Of course, the style of the film is observational, so we didn’t run around and ask questions to people or tell them they had to do certain things. We just took a back seat, filmed when we thought it was called for and only made conversation with the students when we were not filming. We did get some complaints here and there, but nothing really serious.

One of the most striking aspects of your film is how it depicts the entirety of South Korea essentially going on lockdown for test day. What kind of utility do you think the Suneung has in building a sense of unified national consciousness, similar to how mandatory military service (which also exists in Korea) might?

There’s no question about it that Koreans have a strong sense of collectivity. It’s how people are raised and trained, it’s part of the culture. The mandatory military service is no exception. It’s probably also one of the main reasons why South Korea is now such an economic powerhouse. After the Korean War, the people were impoverished and the country reduced to rubble. And look at it now. It’s hard to grasp the changes the country went through in such a short time span.

There’s much to criticize about its educational system, but when the country comes to a stand still on Suneung day, I find it rather admirable. In many ways, it’s a beautiful thing to see so many parents, teachers and even strangers supporting the young people on that day. It almost makes you wonder why that collective spirit is not used to address real change, be it politically or socially.

Another fascinating part of the film is when we see parents going to temples and churches right before, or even on, test day. To what extent do you think the Suneung is an exercise of faith, and how does the burden of faith get distributed between parents and students?

I’m not a religious person myself, so while I was filming the scenes in the churches and temples I tried to figure out what the motivation for all this was. In the Buddhist temples, parents would pray all night and day, in support of their children. In the Christian churches, parents would do the same. They would burst into tears and start speaking in tongues. There’s a devotion there that has a lot to do with the sense of collectivity mentioned earlier. While I’m not questioning the parents’ motivations, it’s also a typical example of the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality which is very present in Korean culture. Most CEOs drive the exact same type of luxury car. If a friend’s daughter goes to an expensive private school, their daughter should go to the same one or better. If one parent gives a Buddhist priest a handout, then the other parent should pay an equal amount or more. And if one mother cries, the other mothers must cry even harder.

When we saw the televised images in North Korea of Kim Jong-il’s funeral and the hysteria that followed, so many people crying, a lot of people in the West seemed shocked. To me, the scenes I had seen in the churches were very similar. The trigger might have been different, but the result is pretty much the same. It’s about not wanting to underperform for the person next to you and to show that one’s commitment is equal or higher than the others.

Let’s also not forget that religion is a huge business (not only in South Korea, of course). Everybody feeds off the desperation of the parents, from the shamans to the Buddhist priests and Christian pastors.

Besides the three students, Reach for the SKY also features Kim Ki-hoon, a multi-millionaire celebrity English teacher. Though the Suneung requires English knowledge, one frequent criticism is that by learning to the test, students don’t gain very practical English skills (ex. they can’t carry a conversation). How good was Kim’s English? By teaching to the test, does he suffer from this same issue that plagues test-takers?

Kim Ki-hoon in a promo video.
Kim Ki-hoon in a promo video.

I would say his English was better than average. One would hope so when you make $4 million USD a year teaching English. But he was the first one to admit that his English was also not very good. Thing is, Kim Ki-hoon’s priority is not to have his students speak fluent English. His priority is for them to maximize their exam results. This is a pervasive teaching methodology in most Korean schools and private institutions: it’s not about gathering knowledge, it’s about the score, and how to develop strategies in order to get the highest score.

What does it matter if you’re not able to have a conversation in English, if you can get 99% on a multiple choice English test? It’s that result that counts in the end (as long as you stay within Korea). A big part of the curriculum of the private institutions is how to identify certain questions, the possible answers and how to spend as little time on each question in order to complete as many questions as possible and therefor increase the chances of a higher score.

It should also be said that Kim Ki-hoon and the private education sector is not the cause of the problem, he’s only part of system that has allowed the private sector to flourish. He might be a savvy businessman and entrepreneur, but at the same time, I think Kim Ki-hoon genuinely cares about his students and he wants them to do well. He delivers a service because there is a demand for it. You can’t blame the private education sector for tapping in to the market of parents and students aiming for a high score. If that state of mind wouldn’t be there, if the educational system would not be organized in the way it is, there would be no need for private institutions in the first place.

How widely has Reach for the SKY been (or will be) distributed in Korea, and what’s the public reception been like? Is your hope that the film might spark a public dialog about the Suneung?

The film had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in October 2015 and then did several festivals in Korea, including the Seoul Independent Film Festival and others.

The reaction of the audience was magnificent. Lots of laughter and lots of tears too. Many people can identify with it; they either went through it themselves or have a son or daughter who has gone through it. While Suneung isn’t anything new for a Korean, the film does work as a mirror and it makes people relive and also reflect on the way things are. I wouldn’t say it has sparked a public dialog, I don’t think one single film can cause a rigid system like this to change, but I do think that it has reminded the people that have seen it how suffocating it all is when you think about it. Perhaps some parents will go back home after seeing the film and be less demanding of their children, maybe put a little less pressure on them. Perhaps some students will leave the theatre and put things a bit more in perspective. Perhaps it allows them to be a little less self-demanding. If that’s the case we have pretty much achieved our goal.

There’s no other distribution planned in Korea right now. We were hoping for a cinema release but that never really happened. Not sure why, because documentaries actually score pretty will at the Korean box office. However, we’re going for worldwide VOD release on November 17th (iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Sony and XBOX) which happens to be Suneung Day 2016. We thought that was rather appropriate. And of course there’s still quite a number of festival screenings coming up. That screening list is can be found on our website.

What do you hope non-Korean audiences might take away from the movie?

I don’t really think that much of the type of films I make, but if I take some distance I guess you could consider them anthropological in nature. I guess my goal is for a Korean audience to learn something about their culture from a fresh point of view, something that perhaps only an outsider could see. And for a non-Korean audience, I hope they are able to identify more with what they see on the screen. When you read a headline in a newspaper or a blog about the Suneung exam, very often the conclusion would be: “wow, how crazy is that? This is so over the top.” By seeing the film, I hope at the end they somehow have a better understanding of – in this case – certain aspects of Korean culture. I hope they have been able to identify with and feel for the students on screen and realize that they’re just teenagers like anywhere else, with dreams, insecurities and many questions. They just happen to have grown up in a system with different codes and different values.

Want to support Steven and Reach for the SKYPurchase the film through its own VOD portal, or (after November 17, 2016) via Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Sony, or XBOX. 

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