Destined to Document: “AKA Seoul” Director Jon Maxwell on Telling Adoptee Stories

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In the summer of 2013, filmmaker Jon Maxwell followed hip-hop artist Dan Matthews, Dan AKA Dan, on a trip to Korea during which Matthews reunited with his biological parents, including a twin brother he didn’t know he had. The documentary series, AKA Dan, has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube and showed on Hulu and at film festivals. Maxwell had an informed point-of-view on the film, because he himself is a Korean adoptee that grew up in upstate New York and Maine.

Maxwell and Matthews have created a sequel to their first project, titled AKA Seoul, which follows four other Korean adoptees on their journeys back to Korea to find their roots. AKA Seoul, a series, premiered at the San Diego Asian Film Festival this weekend and is available on NBC Asian America starting today. The documentary follows characters like Siri, a Korean adoptee raised in Sweden, and Min, a transgender man from the San Francisco Bay Area who experiences Korea for the first time as a man, among others, including continuing Dan’s story—this time, bringing his adoptive parents to Korea to meet his birth family.

Maxwell, who has directed music videos for acts like the Fung Brothers, spoke to me last week from Los Angeles, in the midst of finishing final edits on AKA Seoul, before it played as the Centerpiece Showcase at the San Diego Asian American Film Festival.

-Neelanjana Banerjee

How did you become a filmmaker?
I have had a pretty non-traditional path. I wasn’t an artist growing up. I was more of a jock. And my parents didn’t let me watch a lot of movies when I was a kid, so when I got to college—I watched a lot of movies. I had a mentor there, at Stonehill College outside of Boston, who encouraged me to do something creative for a final project, so I made a film. That was really the beginning.

After college, I went to Korea for a year, searching for my birth parents. Unlike Dan, my path had a dead end. They searched six months and the social worker got back to me and said there wasn’t enough information in my file to go further. I was really young then, only 21 or 22, and was pretty immature. I partied a lot in Korea and I was just drifting.

After Korea, I moved to Los Angeles. I spent my first couple of years in LA as an extra. I didn’t get into NYU Film School, so I decided I was going to create my own curriculum. I would go on set and bring film theory books. I would go to work and read these books, and I would come home to these my little apartment in Santa Monica and watch movies. Back then Blockbuster was still open and had this deal that for $20 bucks a month you could have six movies out at a time. So, in those two years, I watched every movie in Blockbuster. I would consume a director’s whole body of work and then I would read their interviews and that would lead me to film movements like French New Wave and Hong Kong Wave. I had never been so committed to anything in my life. Then I started making low budget short films.

Did you want to make a feature film?
In my 20s, I was obsessing about Quentin Tarantino and Scorcese, all those great 80s and 90s filmmakers. I was working on writing a semi-personal feature, like Mean Streets. I was constantly writing and rewriting this feature script about a Korean adoptee searching for his family but getting lost in the night life of Korea. It was almost like a journal, where I was working out my issues about what happened or didn’t happen when I was there. I probably spent like five years on that thing before I finally put it away to try to do more commercial work and that’s when I began making music videos and commercials.

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How did you come to direct AKA Dan?
It’s funny. When I met Dan in 2012, I wasn’t thinking about Korean adoptee stuff at all. He approached me about directing his music video, and he mentioned his plans to go to Korea in passing, but I didn’t think anything of it. Later, AKA Dan producer Eugene Choi talked to me about the project because the original director had pulled out. When he told me that they were going to follow Dan going back to Korea trying to find his birth parents, I asked, “What’s the story?” And they didn’t really have one. They just wanted to follow him on the process. Honestly, it didn’t sound too exciting to me, but I signed on because it was a free trip to Korea. Why not? Within two days of me signing on, I got a call from Eugene saying that Dan already found his biological family and they are open to meeting him. And I was like, ‘Okay, now we have a story!’ It was just non-stop after that.

How have these projects affected you personally?
Both AKA Dan and AKA Seoul humbled me and showed me how we are just not in control of our paths. It had to be some sort of destiny for me and Dan to meet.

When we were filming, I could literally predict the thing we were about to shoot, because I spent five years writing that script about the adoptee. I had written so many different versions, different genres, different outcomes. I would tell Dan: ‘We have to prepare for this to happen. We have to think about this scenario.’ I had spent so much time thinking about what it would be like to reunite with your family, or not reunite. I really feel like these projects were meant for me because I was able to stay ahead of the story every step of the way. Not just that, but it was so cathartic.

How was shooting AKA Seoul different than the first project?
It was Dan’s idea to feature several other people going back to find their families. At first, the idea was to do these small vignettes, almost like news stories, but I really wanted to push it—to make it more like a feature film. Dan is really connected to the adoptee community because of the film, so he sent a message asking for people who might want to share their story. We got about 40 audition tapes and then narrowed down the list, and did Skype interviews with about ten people. But I knew right away when talking to our subjects because their stories really stood out.

AKA Dan was really about reconnecting with family, with a culture. With AKA Seoul, I wanted to push further into some deeper questions about what it really means to be adopted. What are some psychological implications of being adopted and how can those issues be universal to anyone. And that was the goal: to reveal the universal struggles of adversity. The project has a strong LGBT angle to it, and that was a lens for me to examine how people to face adversity reach a higher understanding of themselves.

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Neelanjana Banerjee is the Managing Editor of Kaya Press.

This interview is made possible by Comcast.