Film review: Jun Bae wants students to burst the bubble
For many students, stepping out of the “Washington University bubble” means leaving campus for a few hours to explore any adjacent neighborhood. For Jun Bae, it means making a documentary about the historic segregation of St. Louis.
As I was deciding which films to watch during this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), I came upon a familiar name: Bob Hansman. A documentary titled “Bob’s Tour: Understanding What We See,” about Hansman’s popular community tours, was premiering at the festival. What surprised me the most was the name next to the word “director.” It was Jun Bae, a Wash. U. graduate from the class of 2016 with whom I shared a class with last semester. Immediately, I reached out to him, wanting to know more about how this documentary originated.
Like many Wash. U. students at the time, the events that transpired in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014 after the death of Michael Brown was a turning point for Jun and his perception of St. Louis in relation to his role as a student at an institution like Washington University. From the comfort of the Sam Fox School of Art & Design studios, Jun felt compelled to do something about what was unfolding right before his eyes. Being a bystander was not an option for him. That’s when he finally understood what people meant about the “Wash. U. bubble.”
“When I realized that, I was in architecture studio doing architectural work, but [that] doesn’t address any of these issues that were happening in the city,” Bae said. “None of the things I was working with were related to or had any relationship with the city of St. Louis, and so, I started going out to the protests.”
In the fall of 2014, with a camera in hand, Jun attended demonstrations in Ferguson and began photographing and documenting the divides before he even knew them. It wasn’t until later that he realized documentary films would be a better medium to convey the message he wanted to communicate. That’s when he enrolled in a documentary course titled “Tale of Two Cities: Documenting our Divides,” the place of birth for his feature, “Bob’s Tour.” As part of the class, he attended his first-ever Hansman tour.
“Up until that point, I was still contemplating how I should narrate these stories because there [are] a lot of ways you can do it, but at the end of the day, you want to reach out to people who are not interested in the first place—you have to make people care, and that was one of the struggles,” he said.
It did not take Jun long to realize that professor Hansman was the perfect narrator for the story he was trying to tell.
“I went probably [to] at least a dozen tours throughout the year I was making this film. Even during the class, I would go back to the tour and start recording, start documenting,” he said.
Days after our conversation, I attended the SLIFF screening of “Bob’s Tour,” in the Brown School. It was a full house on Saturday evening and chatter surrounding the film was enthusiastic—and understandably so. “Bob’s Tour” is a consciously complex film that isn’t afraid to ask more questions than what it can answer or to complicate the narrative that has dominated conversation in the St. Louis community for years. Any documentary that tackles issues like housing discrimination, school inequity, economic crisis, violence and political corruption within the same narrative is already a triumph in attempt. Yet, Jun carefully interweaves the personal tale of Bob’s life and the silenced stories of St. Louis residents impacted by the divides.
Part of the reason why the film is effective is because Jun approached the process of putting the documentary together as an outsider, new to the community.
“There is a certain idea about America that people have outside of America, in third world countries or developing countries—how America is idealized and this image of the American dream. You know, slavery is over; race relations [are] no problem,” Bae said. “So, when you see that that’s not true at all, or if anything it’s so much worse than you thought, you think twice about what you have been told outside of the American context, as well as think about how this information affects everyone in the globe because of that power of information. So, my film was a way to subvert those misconceptions, some of those constructed ideas about America.”
Jun was born in Korea but grew up and lived in Japan until coming to Wash. U. to study architecture. His dual experience as an international resident of St. Louis and a student of the University are two aspects present in the way he structured “Bob’s Tour.”
During our conversation, it hit me that Jun made this film at the same time he was a full-time student of the architecture program, known for its rigorous, time-consuming curriculum. I simply asked him how. He laughed, “Yeah, you know, Wash. U. classes are hella (sic) demanding. They take up a lot of time.”
Nonetheless, it did not stop Jun from pursuing the documentary because it was clear to him that this was what he wanted to do.
At the end of his documentary course, he presented to the class the first cut of “Bob’s Tour.” For the final project, each student was supposed to create a 15-minute short documentary. His was close to two hours. “[Bob] came to the screening. And he saw it for the first time, and he loved it,” Jun said, almost in relief.
After all, one of the central points of the documentary was Hansman, as a white man adopting a black child from Clinton-Peabody—his son Jovan Hansman, who now runs the City Faces art program. “In one sense, the story is about the decline of a major city that was destined to be the capital of the United States but also, through depicting Bob’s story, a white man and a black son, it tells a story on a more personal level so that people can empathize more,” Jun explained.
He worked closely with Hansman in making sure the story was well-represented. When I asked him what their relationship was like, he tells me an anecdote.
“One time, after we had a screening at the [Olin] Business School, he wrote like a three-page response [to the documentary] with some suggestions,” Bae said. “Bob, he really cares about not just me but my work as well.”
Right now, Jun is a faculty assistant to Hansman’s Community Building course and continues attending the tours. In fact, he let me know that after our interview, he was hopping on a bus tour in which Bob plans on taking people north of Delmar Boulevard.
When I asked Hansman about the way Jun portrayed his story, he was enthusiastic.
“What I think [Jun] did that was very smart was interweaving the tour with Peabody and Jovan. The larger message is about those kind of conversations where you’re talking to people unlike yourself. And that means different neighborhoods, people with different disciplines, because there is no problem that we talk about that is a one-discipline problem,” Hansman said. “You can’t talk about the legal system without talking about housing, without talking about jobs, without talking about education.”
Before being selected for SLIFF, Jun had submitted his film to the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, an annual feature presentation by Cinema St. Louis, right at the last second of the deadline. Within hours, he received a response notifying him that both “Exodus” and “Bob’s Tour” had been selected for the showcase. “Exodus,” a short documentary, deals with the current eminent domain crisis that has pushed off St. Louis Place residents in favor of building new facilities for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).
“That’s such a surreal experience, to have your film screened at the Tivoli Theater where you would just watch movies on Delmar,” Jun said, unable to contain his joy. Soon after, he was notified that his film had been selected for the official film festival lineup.
The road to making this film wasn’t an easy one, Jun admitted.
“There were some tough moments when I wanted to…” He doesn’t finish the sentence. “I mean, I enjoyed the process overall. I still struggle to this day; I still struggle financially getting funding, applying for grants, but I’m hopeful about the potential that I can do or achieve in filmmaking.”
The future seems infinite for Jun. Although he plans to stick around in St. Louis to continue documenting the divides through the “Tale of Two Cities,” project created by his former documentary instructor, Denise Ward-Brown, he is certain that documentary won’t be the only thing he will pursue.
“As a filmmaker, I have so many different goals and paths that I want to explore because I’ve only done filmmaking for like a year. And there’s literally limitless possibilities in filmmaking,” Jun said.
When I asked him if there’s anything else he wanted to tell me, he said: “I really want to speak to the Wash. U. students; you should really get out of the Wash. U. bubble. I think that if Ferguson didn’t happen, I would’ve left St. Louis without knowing any of these issues that were happening—the racial issues, the segregation issues.”
For students new to the city, he explained, “The least thing you can do [during] your stay here is to explore St. Louis: Go out there; there are many ways.”
No doubt that “Bob’s Tour” will become one of those ways.