‘Sewing Sisters’ tells the story of female textile workers who fought back
The phrase “miracle on the Han River” refers to the country’s extraordinary economic boom that spanned half a century after the 1950-53 Korean War, before the 1997 financial crisis.
It’s a term often spoken by Koreans with pride, acknowledging the nation’s rare feat of transitioning from a developing to a developed country. However, at the cost of these accomplishments, their pride quickly dissipates.
An emblematic figure of this era was a labor activist named Chun Tae-il (1948-70), who committed suicide at the age of 22 by setting himself on fire to raise awareness of poor working conditions in Korean factories. in the 1960s.
Korea’s textile industry was one of the booming sectors that helped shape the country’s economy. However, the industry thrived in extremely abusive work environments because workers were oblivious to the concept of defending their rights or the Labor Standards Act, the basis of labor laws.
Chun was not the only worker to fight for his rights, but he became a beacon of hope that workers modeled themselves on.
The story of the documentary “Sewing Sisters,” released in local cinemas Jan. 20, follows in the footsteps of women textile workers at Pyeonghwa Market (also known as Seoul Peace Market) in the 1970s. was a hot spot for sweatshops, and women, called shida, were responsible for the final stages of garment making, such as ironing and ironing clothes and cutting loose strands of yarn.
The film’s opening scene takes place under forget-me-not blue skies with three women talking as they slowly walk up a hill where three sewing machines stand side by side. They expertly admire the clothes left behind by the machines and begin to sew each other’s names onto the fabric.
Their names are Lee Suk-hee, Shin Soon-ae and Im Mi-kyung and they were real shida in the 70s.
One of the documentary’s co-directors, Lee Hyuk-rae, shot this scene to give the characters a chance to work in a cool, open space.
“I wanted to shoot a scene where the women were actually working with their machines,” Lee said during a recent interview with Korea JoongAng Daily at his office in Mapo District, west of Seoul. “I realized that 40 to 50 years ago their work environments were cramped, dark and dusty spaces, so along with that I wanted them to work in a wide, bright, nice and open space. ”
“The factories were very small and we could barely stand inside,” Im Mi-kyung said after a press screening in January. “All day we worked hunched over the machines and there was no ventilation system. So during the summer when we turned on the fans, they stopped working after two hours because they were so clogged with dust. The dust made everything really difficult – we could barely breathe properly and the stench of the clothes when we ironed them made the task even more overwhelming.
The age of the textile workers varied, ranging from those fresh out of elementary school to teenagers and those in their early twenties. Girls were often taken to work soon after entering adolescence to support their families.
After Chun’s death, a union was established and a labor school was formed where textile workers could receive an education. The film centers on what happened on September 9, 1977 when women protested to protect the labor school from martial law under President Park Chung Hee.
The government at the time was trying to shut down the school, suspecting it was a training school for communists.
“As mentioned in the film, the work school has not been treated and is not known as just a classroom for these employees,” Lee said. “For them, it was a place of learning, a playground, an environment where they could flourish. So no matter what time their work finished, even after 11 p.m., they always stopped by the classroom because it was an even more precious place than their home, and they couldn’t stand that. we take that away from them. […] School was a place where they could discover what kind of person they were and realize that they could be treated decently and humanely.
According to director Kim Jung-young, reaching out and persuading former workers to appear in the documentary wasn’t easy because it meant immersing themselves in a past they had hidden from others. Workers involved in the September 9 protest have faced police brutality, jail time and even workplace discrimination after being blacklisted.
“I had done the basic interview with our three leads, but I had to go after the rest of their friends and persuade them,” Park said. “I think I chased them for about a year and a half. The rest of the interviewees were important because I structured the story based on the September 9 protest and what happened that day. After interviewing all three, I also needed insight from another angle – the experiences of other workers – to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
“From an objective perspective, the September 9 protest was not a significant or widely recognized historical event,” Lee said. “It didn’t spark a social movement or controversy, but for union members it was monumental. For them it was the greatest event that ever happened [in their lives]. So I thought it was pointless to be objective about that day. The important thing was to show what was going on in the minds of these workers before the protest and how they were hurt because of it. That’s why it was essential to capture their reactions. See how their facial expressions change and melt away thinking about their past – that would be how the audience would sympathize with them […] Since this film is about the past, we wanted to show related papers and photographs but we didn’t want to put them all in chronological order and show them in order. I wanted to capture the respondent’s responses while they were reviewing or reading [the memories]that’s why our main interview format became one where two people sat opposite each other in front of a projection screen.
When asked what gave them the courage to take a stand, the women interviewed shrug their shoulders and say it is the vigor of their youth or their ignorance of reality. Lee has a different perspective.
“The film was shown overseas once at the Korean Film Festival in London, and one review hit me,” he said. “He said, this film ‘represents their [the women’s] fight to win the concession of basic health and safety in the workplace and the right to reasonable working hours, days off and decent pay – the very basics of what an employee can expect today. It was not just about marches, clashes and noisy demonstrations. It started with something much simpler, as those interviewed in the film explain: a growing recognition, in response to a new philosophy whispered within their ranks, that they were worth something and deserved to be treated decently. .
“I’m careful not to romanticize what these women went through. There’s a scene where I say [in the interview] that she has decided to become the next Chun Tae-il [during the protest]. But I didn’t want people to think, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that a 14-year-old girl says she wants to be the next Chun Tae-il?’ This should never happen again […] In everyone’s mind, there was a living Chun Tae-il within them and they were determined that no further sacrifices such as his life would be made. I think that’s what gave them courage.
Lee hopes that after participating in this documentary, women will no longer feel that their past should be hidden.
“I don’t think it’s a story they should be ashamed of or hide from others,” he said. “It was a time when they shone brightest – they were young, fiery and beautiful. I was hoping that the interviewees could pick up on that through that process. That’s what this whole shoot was all about – even if he talks about a painful part of their past, they can redo all the activities they did in school. Like 40 years ago, they talk to each other, write to each other, listen to each other, dance and sing together.Relive the 1970s, they can finally face their past and realize that they shouldn’t be ashamed of it: they were beautiful and they shone.
BY LEE JAE-LIM [[email protected]]