A 2015 documentary by Adam Sjöberg profiling artist Sun Mu (alias meaning “no boundaries”), a North Korean defector wanted by the state for execution. Sun Mu uses his art to counter the oppressive propaganda of his home country. I Am Sun Mu follows Sun Mu as he prepares undercover for a solo exhibition in China, potentially risking his own freedom and safety.

Co-founder of Required Reading Productions, Adam Sjöberg is a filmmaker and photojournalist whose work has taken him to over 60 countries. He has directed the documentaries Shake the Dust (executive produced by rapper Nas) and I Am Sun Mu.

Mariana Blanco is a documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Her work has been shown at Sundance Film Festival and won TED’s Ideas Worth Spreading. As a documentary editor, she has worked with Adam Sjöberg on Shake the Dust and I Am Sun Mu.

Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) is a nonprofit organization based in Torrance, CA, and Seoul, South Korea. LiNK’s primary clients are North Korean refugees hiding in China. LiNK resettles these refugees in South Korea and the United States to avoid forced repatriation to North Korea and its harsh illegal emigration penalties.

Shake The Dust is a 2014 documentary about young breakdancers, or B-Boys and B-Girls, in the slums of Colombia, Cambodia, Uganda and Yemen who use hip-hop to provoke positive social change. In an effort to forgo presuppositions or superimposed interpretation, the film’s nontraditional storytelling is led by its subjects. Shake The Dust captures the vibrant art of breakdancing in the most unlikely places.

I Am Sun Mu, a documentary directed by Adam Sjöberg and edited by Mariana Blanco, chronicles Sun Mu, a North Korean defector who makes political pop art based on his life, homeland and hope for a future united Korea. This is the second film Sjöberg and Blanco have collaborated on and hopefully not the last. It’s clear that their deep humanity and dedication lends whatever they touch a life force of its own—one that crosses cultural and political boundaries, from convincing Sun Mu to collaborate in telling his story, despite the risks involved, to dispelling the prejudice around North Koreans.

Amid their global travels, Sjöberg and Blanco talk about forming a special connection with Sun Mu, their creative process and why they remain devoted to the medium of documentary storytelling.

Mariana Blanco: Can you explain your first meeting with Sun Mu?

Adam Sjöberg: The first night I met Sun Mu I went to his studio, and he was really intimidating. He had all this cool art. I was blown away not just by his art, but how prolific he was. He was smoking away at his cigarettes. I wanted a picture of him, so he put this scarf over his face and put on sunglasses.

Justin Wheeler, Vice President of Liberty in North Korea, had wanted to make a documentary about him, so the pretext for going out to dinner with Sun Mu was to convince him to do it. But as soon as we got out to eat, they told me in English, “He’s already said he won’t do it.” I was like, “Okay, so why are we here?” But we just started drinking Soju and, before I knew it, Sun Mu and I really connected. It was one of those moments where I didn’t feel the language barrier. I don’t remember Justin or Annie, the translator, being there anymore.

It took over a year before we actually started filming, but pretty much right away I thought, this will work. You just know when someone is a good person, and I think we both thought that about each other.

“It was a collaboration between all
of us with Sun Mu as the guiding
narrator. The film is carried by his
own interpretation of things.”

MB: It is crazy how without shared language, you can have a true understanding. Hanging out with you both, I can see how that happened.

What blows my mind is if you think about everything Sun Mu grew up with in North Korea, it was all propaganda against the United States. Americans are the bad guys. There’s something magical about an American and a North Korean defector telling a story together. It’s a powerful reconciliation in my mind.

AS: Sun Mu created sketches and played music for the film. His art is a big part of the movie and comes to life with Ryan Wehner’s animation. It was a collaboration between all of us with Sun Mu as the guiding narrator. The film is carried by his own interpretation of things. When we screened the film at DMZ Docs [held in South Korea], several South Koreans said it helped them understand North Koreans in a whole new light because there is so much prejudice between South and North.

Someone commented that they loved how many kids were in the movie. Are there any other exciting things in the film that happened in the process?

MB: Sun Mu is surrounded by kids right now: he has two daughters and he paints children in that propaganda style. His fingerprints are all over the footage. I also liked how much rock he listens to. He always had music playing in his studio. I could kind of identify with that—growing up in a secluded environment, then suddenly entering the world of music for the first time in your life. Every time I was watching footage, there was another ’60s surf rock song.

AS: When the film was premiering in Korea, people asked me, “How did you keep a good distance from Sun Mu so you could be impartial?” But that is actually something I don’t agree with. I think it’s impossible to be impartial. My entire approach is to become good friends with whomever I’m documenting. I don’t know how you can really tell someone’s story unless you get to know them intimately. It’s pretty hard to not love someone when you learn about their pain and what makes them who they are.

Let’s talk about process. We worked together on a documentary before this called Shake The Dust, but it was different in that we didn’t start from scratch. I Am Sun Mu, on the other hand, is our first experience working together from zero. What have you learned as an editor that informs your process moving forward?