Some say ‘I’m a Little Big Hero’
By Casey Lartigue Jr.
If I hadn’t known I was on TV, I would have learned it quickly because of the messages I started receiving: “Hey! Do you know you’re on TV?” I rarely watch TV, even when I have been interviewed.
But this time, I was parked in front of the TV along with colleagues (including one of the North Korean refugees who told me “You look better on TV”). We were watching a 50-minute cable TV special about an organization I co-founded here in South Korea.
Being profiled by media is like sticking your head in the mouth of a circus lion. They can be well-trained, even docile at times, but a lion is a lion. The jaws come crashing down when editors take over later. Then, publication day, with the usual apology: “I’m sorry, my editor changed/added that.”
Last year I had a request from a movie director in the U.S. who wanted to do a documentary about me, but I recalled the observation from the late Shinae Chun: “The interview is the honeymoon; publication is the divorce.”
The proposed documentary sounded promising, but the director already had his concept etched in stone.
He wanted to profile me as a black man in South Korea helping North Korean refugees, as an example of international solidarity. I passed up the opportunity, and got back to work.
I recently received another request, from a South Korean film crew that wanted to highlight me.
I stopped sharpening my knives after they explained they wanted to tell the story of how I had built an organization helping North Korean refugees, that I was an example of what they considered a “Little Big Hero.” I agreed to the story, on the condition that they highlight the organization, not just me, because we have many “Little Big Heroes” among our volunteers and students.
After dealing with me, they were probably happy with my suggestion. I can be like a day at the beach — right after a storm has hit.
I resisted their concept and complained about some of the things they wanted to record. I even typed a message, reminding myself not to get up and walk out when they started asking me the “some say” questions. Journalists find others or the always available “some say” to ask questions. Check the video, you’ll see me tapping on my iPad, looking both bored and irritated.
But the rest of the time was fantastic.
They followed me around for more than a week to all of my meetings, had cameras pointed at me even as I sat at my desk typing, and seemed to be interested in everything I did. They even video-recorded my shoes as I walked. It was fun, but I never forgot that I was putting my head in the mouth of a lion.
I often tell people to view media as a guide, not the gospel truth. I don’t get upset by the angle, concept, or mistakes, I tell people: “That’s the writer’s opinion of me.”
There is acting and planning even in reality shows, the use of the “artist license” to make biographies more dramatic and interesting. If the TV team hadn’t called ahead, the gym staff may have wondered if I really had a gym membership, based on how rarely they see me.
Every once in a while, however, reality would pop up.
A North Korean refugee hoping to study in our program walked in, unannounced. Thankfully I wasn’t in the bathroom at the time, that might have been the focus, or we may have had to re-do the scene. It was so unplanned that the translator, who is supposed to be hidden off-camera, was recorded in the scene.
The young man was confused when he tried to enter the door, nervously double-checking if he was in the right place, all of which the camera outside captured. He spoke absolutely no English, but he was there to announce in his North Korean accent that he wanted to learn English with us.
That the cameras were there every moment allowed them to catch other unscripted moments, such as a diaper change (thanks to the daughter of a refugee studying with us). I had to warn an intern, so he wouldn’t open the diaper to inspect it.
And then there were the more than 100 phone calls, including some angry ones, the day after the show aired, from South Koreans asking if they could study in our small volunteer program intended for North Korean refugees.
And then there were the unexpected donations from Koreans (refugees, native South Koreans, and Korean-Americans), who said they were moved to tears.
The final result was fantastic, even though there are some parts I would have cut. I stuck my head in the lion’s mouth again, enduring just bad breath, not death.
Casey Lartigue Jr. is the co-founder of the Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center (TNKR) in Seoul. He can be reached at CJL@post.harvard.edu.