▲ Anna Jougla and a Jeju woman diver. Photo courtesy Anna Jougla
"I'm looking into sea tales, ecology, folk stories, cultural heritage preservation... I am a keen diver... and would like to be a voice and address the mermaids' issues..."
So began a series of conversations with Anna Jougla, French actress and filmmaker who has made Beijing her home for the past 15 years — and is presently living and working in East Timor. Jougla, an avid diver, initially came to Jeju last September for recreational diving and fell in love with the island's diving women.
Citing their strong community identity, their "sisterhood," and her sympathy for its rapid decline and interest in women's empowerment, she decided to help in the way that she knows best: to make a feature film that in some way tells their story to international audiences. For this project she is working with Seoul producer and longtime friend Lee B-Won.
Jougla returned to Jeju in November and stayed for nearly a month on Udo, as an artist-in-residence sponsored by the Jeju Film Commission. She regularly dove and lived with the haenyeo there, attempting to gain a deeper understanding of their lifestyle and community in order to develop her story approach.
"One woman, a Mrs. Ko," she described, "was shelling peanuts and when I asked her to sing, she immediately shared her beautiful voice with me in a very old song which was joyful and peaceful." Jougla identified this experience as "simple yet profound" and from it she became inspired to include music in her film, perhaps even a song-related storyline.
She also spoke of the 13-year old haenyeo-in-training that she interviewed, and of the many women who shared their time, stories, food and life with her.
Of great significance, according to Jougla, was the women's — and, her — relationship with the landscape.
"I stayed so long to 'feel' the earth, to understand the rocks," she said. "I 'saw' the spirits in the land and geographic features — transcendent, animistic, complex, connected, awakening. I felt strength."
She recounted diving at a site where 4.3 victims were massacred, feeling there a sense of spirit connected to the elements. She hopes to find a way to portray these myriad impressions in her film.
▲ Photo courtesy Anna Jougla
Jougla is now back in East Timor, developing her storyline and raising the necessary funding for the project. She intends to begin filming on Jeju in May.
During her last visit, she also met with and was interviewed by Provincial Council member Lee Sunhwa, who is chief of the council's Special Committee on Women and assistant chief of the government's committee on haenyeo preservation which is focused on UNESCO designation.
Lee, a former producer for MBC, asked Jougla about her impressions of Jeju women as "Asian Amazons," citing their strength and leadership.
Referring to haenyeo "productivity and place in society into their elder years," Jougla commented, "we cannot see this in France or in Europe... I've never seen people working so hard... It's good for women to retain status... In France, old people watch TV and wait to die... Here, every day is with friends, community... Maybe they reduce their [working] hours [as they age], but they don't stop."
When asked about her emerging storyline, she described it as "a poetic journey about the sea... and my encounters with the amazing haenyeo, from reality to fiction to fantasy, with song and other media... a sort of 'docu-fiction' but a feature film, not documentary which is overdone — and, a foreigner can't know the culture deeply." She plans to include historical footage such as songs and film clips, the Seolmundae myth, and an emotional and visual point of view, citing "three realities: mine, that of the haenyeo, and myth."
About continuance of the haenyeo profession, she had this to say: "They are not unified, for example in licensing or registration fees, regulations; also, they could have a mixed profession such as diving plus education." And UNESCO? "To love haenyeo universally, the first step being culture: art, sculpture, film, music, sport, ecology."
Lee asked, "What would you like to tell the Jeju government about the haenyeo?" to which Jougla replied that they must find alternatives to protect the haenyeo. She added, "The men must work more, such as carrying the weight for haenyeo when they emerge from the water; haenyeo shouldn't be working after diving."
▲ From left: The author, Lee B- Won, Anna Jougla and Council Member Lee Sunhwa. Photo courtesy Anna Jougla
No doubt identifying with this filmmaker from her own career in broadcasting, Lee commented that she is "the daughter of a haenyeo, and already made a documentary of Udo haenyeo... I want to globalize our culture's story, as a way of marketing the island — haenyeo as the first and best story, then others... and, to get the haenyeo to have a more relaxed lifestyle as they are workaholics, sometimes depressed... We need to teach all Koreans a new way, not 'work is life'... especially, Udo people need to learn to enjoy life."
"Jeju is a really special place to me... amazing, loving, wonderful people," Jougla shared, stating she was "very touched by so much love."
"We meet people who say, this is our destiny — and I begin to believe it... I was here only one month but it feels like many years. I feel very nurtured — food, heart, everything."
Citing the culture, storytelling as oral history, and song as a source of pride and reflection of energy and diversity, she concluded, "If you lose this, you are losing the soul of Jeju."
Anne Hilty is a cultural health psychologist.
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