Embracing Soft Power in Cinema: A Cross-Cultural Conversation with Sarah Lelouch and Yongjae Bae
Moderated by Pauline Yeung (KEY)
February 1st, 2024 | Interview
Sarah Lelouch: Born and raised in the world of cinema, Sarah left her career as a journalist and television presenter in 2005 to set up Watch'Us, a production company that for 17 years has been promoting the values she holds dear to her heart: diversity of origins, personalities, and genres. This first entrepreneurial success and her passion for cinema led her to embark on a new adventure in 2021 by setting up La Diversité du Cinéma Français. La DCF is a start-up which, thanks to Web3, offers the French film industry a new method of financing designed to bring out young talent and produce films that are close to the public as well as to history and shared values.
Yongjae Bae: After working in the cultural and public relations team at the Daewoo Group Chairman’s office in the 1990s, Yongjae left for France in the early 2000s and majored in Communication and Film Studies at the University of Paris III. He founded the Festival du Film Coréen à Paris in 2006 and was appointed President at its inception, a position he has held till today. Yongjae has been instrumental in the development of the Festival, which received the French-Korean Culture Prize in 2013 in recognition of its contributions to cultural exchange. Yongjae also received the Korean Film Achievement Award at the 24th Busan International Film Festival in 2019 in recognition of his important role in introducing Korean cinema to the international film industry.
KEY recently hosted a cross-cultural conversation with two luminaries in the world of film and cinema – Sarah Lelouch, French producer and founder of Watch'Us Productions and La Diversité du Cinéma Français, who was a speaker at the Korea-Europe Soft Power Forum organized by KEY, and Yongjae Bae, founder and President of the Festival du Film Coréen à Paris.
In an insightful interview moderated by Pauline Yeung, Sarah and Yongjae discuss their entrepreneurial journeys in promoting diversity and inclusion in cinema and detail how they are bringing Korean content to French and global audiences.
Diversity and Inclusion in the World of Film and Cinema
KEY: Sarah, you established your production company Watch'Us in 2005 with the goal of promoting diversity and inclusion in the film industry. Did your multicultural background play a role in shaping your initiatives?
Sarah: Yes, you’re absolutely right, my mother is Swedish, and I was raised in two cultures, with the French culture but also the Swedish culture. I think it's very important for everyone to get to know different cultures, not just knowing it but also understanding it because it comes through the food and through the way we raise our children, and we should not think that we need to do things a particular way just because everyone else is doing it that way. With my background, diversity is a subject that is very important to me, and in my work, I champion not only the diversity of subjects, but also diversity of cultures, origins, and formats.
KEY: Yongjae, you also founded the Festival du Film Coréen à Paris at around the same time, in 2006. Back then, how did you come up with the idea for the film festival?
Yongjae: In 2006, as a group of Korean students studying in France, we established the private organisation “Association 1886” to launch a film festival for cultural exchange between Korea and France. Since we were international students, the festival was timed to coincide with the Toussaint holiday, and it is held during this time in the calendar till this day. We started the festival with nothing but passion, and after a lot of trial and error, it has evolved from an event for Korean students in France to a place for French and Korean collaboration through film.
“We started the festival with nothing but passion, and after a lot of trial and error, it has evolved from an event for Korean students in France to a place for French and Korean collaboration through film.”
KEY: Sarah, you were born and raised in the world of cinema, so it must have been natural for you to be drawn to the film industry. How have you forged your own path through your focus on diversity and inclusion?
Sarah: Having grown up in the world of cinema, I realized that not everyone can communicate with everyone, and I really wanted to make different subjects accessible to the public. For example, Watch’Us was the first production company in France to create a rap show on the public service in 2006. The show was called PlanèteRap and we featured rappers such as Booba, Diam's, and groups such as the FF. While nobody would program rap music back then, we can say now that rap is one of the most popular forms of music here in France and all the artists I showcased achieved great success and topped bestseller charts. This is an example of democratizing access to content.
“While nobody would program rap music back then, we can say now that rap is one of the most popular forms of music here in France and all the artists I showcased achieved great success and topped bestseller charts.”
KEY: Yongjae, is diversity one of the criteria for selecting films for the Festival du Film Coréen à Paris?
Yongjae: I think the term diversity can be interpreted in many ways. For example, it can be a way to introduce Korean films that are not commercial productions or a way to introduce classic films or lesser-known films. There are different genres and types of films that audiences want to see, and I think festivals need to achieve a balance. In the case of the Festival du Film Coréen à Paris, we have a variety of films in the selection. For example, in the Paysage section, it's like a year in review of the Korean film industry from our perspective, encompassing commercial productions, low-budget films, and documentaries. Through a programme called Portrait, we have also introduced emerging directors such as Yoon Sung-hyun, Shin Su-won, Yoon Ga-eun, Jeon Go-woon, Jung Seoung-oh, and Lim Oh-jeong.
KEY: Can you tell us more about the Shortcut competition and how it reaches diverse audiences?
Yongjae: We have a short film competition called Shortcut. Each year, we receive close to 600 shorts, of which we showcase 20 or so, and the best ones are invited to the festival the following year for a full-length screening and audience dialogue. We also think it's important to be proactive in showing work to diverse audiences who may not have been exposed to Korean cinema. So, we have been running Shortcut Kids, a children's section, since 2021, and we are collaborating with organisations in Paris so that children can come to our festival.
Opportunities and Challenges in the Past 20 Years
KEY: Sarah, Watch’Us has produced over 300 programs, a dozen documentaries, and two award-winning short films. What are some of the most unforgettable moments in the past 19 years?
Sarah: That’s a tough question. I have earned awards on my short films and of course it's always exciting to have our work recognized. But one documentary that I'm very proud to have produced is Entre 2 Vies which traces French actor Samy Naceri’s release from prison in June 2008 to his return to prison in January 2009. The documentary focused on his attempts at reintegration, and this was not a popular subject, but I thought it was an interesting angle to follow a very famous actor and the documentary garnered many audiences. I am very proud that it touched a lot of people.
KEY: Yongjae, the participants of the Festival du Film Coréen à Paris have increased exponentially from 500 viewers in 2006 to more than 15,000 viewers today. Can you tell us about the growth of the festival?
Yongjae: In the beginning, we held the festival as a screening event at a small cinema in the Latin district, where cinemas were concentrated. When times were difficult, I even sold my car and my stamps to support the Festival. As word of mouth spread and more and more film lovers became aware of Korean cinema, the audience outnumbered the seats at the venue, and since 2013 the festival has been held at Publicis Cinémas on the Champs-Élysées, where it continues to take place today. The festival is increasingly supported by private companies and various organisations, and I very much hope that the festival will live up to expectations. In 2025, we will celebrate our 20th anniversary, and I plan to take this opportunity to discuss the growth of the festival and the direction it should take in the future.
KEY: Yongjae, what are some of the challenges that you faced in presenting the festival?
Yongjae: One constant challenge is to stay abreast of the creative flow every year because there are a lot of works being produced, and a lot of it is being presented in cinemas, platforms, or at leading film festivals abroad. I try not to get stuck in one place, and to be exposed to a wide range of works.
KEY: Did the pandemic also pose challenges to the festival?
Yongjae: We had some difficulties with the coronavirus, but maybe that's when we realised how much the audience believed in and loved the festival. We had a situation where we couldn't even start the festival properly due to the lockdown, but we received a lot of encouraging messages, and when the situation improved, it was good to see many people come again as audience members.
“We had some difficulties with the coronavirus, but maybe that's when we realised how much the audience believed in and loved the festival.”
Korean Content and the Development of the Korean Wave
KEY: Sarah, the Korean Wave has become popular in France and in many other countries around the world. Did you see this coming or was it quite unexpected?
Sarah: For me it started when I watched Parasite which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. At first, I was not enthusiastic about the idea to see the film because it’s a little harder for me to make the effort to see films that are not in English, French, or Swedish, but I loved that movie and thought it was one of the best movies I had seen in the last few years. I also thought it was not for a small audience because it was very accessible. It was very modern, and I liked the narration and the message. And that was when I thought it was time for me to discover more about Korean movies.
KEY: Yongjae, from your experience, how have Korean films gained traction among French audiences?
Yongjae: Between 2006 and 2024, there has been unparalleled development of Korean cinema as a genre. The popularity of Korean films among audiences and industry professionals alike rose significantly with the French release of Parasite which came after the film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The general interest in Korean content also reached high levels through Squid Game, which became a global phenomenon in the second half of 2021. French film distribution companies are increasingly visiting the Festival du Film Coréen à Paris each year.
KEY: Sarah, can you tell us more about your upcoming movie about K-pop?
Sarah: We are currently in the writing phase of this movie. K-pop was the main subject of a pitch that came in and I thought that it was really interesting. I started to go around a little bit to learn more about K-pop and I discovered the huge community and huge success of this movement. In France the young people know about K-pop but it is still a relatively small audience.
KEY: Yongjae, what are your views on the current point that Korean cinema is at?
Yongjae: : Today, there is a chain effect of increased curiosity about Korea through Korean films. There are many people who want to know more about Korea through films, and many people who want to know more about the culture they have seen through films. But the fact that people want to see a variety of Korean films and have a deeper understanding of 5 Korean cinemas means that we have reached a turning point where we must ask ourselves whether we can continue to create solid content. We need to look beyond the popularity of the Korean Wave and actively consider whether this can be sustained and whether emerging creators can keep the momentum going.
“We need to look beyond the popularity of the Korean Wave and actively consider whether this can be sustained and whether emerging creators can keep the momentum going.”
Looking to the Future
KEY: Sarah, you are working on an event called TechCannes to be launched at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2024. How are you bridging the tech world with the cinema world?
Sarah: Through my company La Diversité du Cinéma Français I have been using new technologies like Web3 to create a new source of financing for the film industry while also giving the public the opportunity to participate in projects from the beginning till the end. When I did fundraising for the company I realized that people in the tech industry don’t know people in the cinema industry and vice versa. We also need to educate people that Web3 is not only about cryptocurrencies. It’s also about using the blockchain in a secure manner. TechCannes will take place in May 2024 during the Cannes Film Festival. It will be a chance for the two industries to connect. There will be a conference with keynotes and tech people to present new technologies. There will also be a networking space and it will be open to everyone.
“I have been using new technologies like Web3 to create a new source of financing for the film industry while also giving the public the opportunity to participate in projects from the beginning till the end.”
KEY: Sarah, you are also actively supporting the new generation of French talent through your start-up. Can you tell us more about this?
Sarah: Yes, it’s about my desire to offer the opportunity to everyone to have access to the cinema industry. Anyone can send us a pitch and they don’t need to already be in the industry. We have received more than 600 projects and selected six of them to be developed here in France, including the movie I am producing on K-pop. We source new talents not only as authors but also actors and directors. These young talents will already be supported by a big community which will reassure those who are funding and financing the projects.
“it’s about my desire to offer the opportunity to everyone to have access to the cinema industry.”
KEY: Do you see Korea and France as cultural superpowers? As film professionals and entrepreneurs who live and breathe cinema, what is your view on the role of cinema in promoting peace, dialogue, and understanding in an increasingly complex world?
Sarah: Being an artist is a way to take a position and it’s true that it's much easier to talk about sports and dance than it is to talk about conflicts and politics. I think the best way to talk about the subject is to find a neutral way to do it, even though this is quite difficult.
Yongjae: I think arts and culture have a role to play in conversations across national boundaries. Some artworks denounce the present, others offer comfort. Some look to the future, others to the past. The measure of a cultural powerhouse depends on how many more creative and artistic works will emerge and find audiences in the future. We need popular works that can be commercially successful, but we also need to develop works that don't fit into a formula for box office success. In that sense, diversity can be a way of defining a cultural powerhouse.