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Kevin Sawicki and Alex Igidbashian are currently senior film students at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania who are striving to make a documentary film about the Haenyeo women of Jeju Island, South Korea.
Haenyeo, is the title commonly given to a woman free driver, who, in the hunt for octopi, abalone and conch, dive with only a wet suit, mask, and cutting tool (they utilize no oxygen tank or respirator). Generation after generation of these women have passed down techniques that allow them to hold their breath for up to the three minutes, and dive down to sixty feet. Jeju-do is a small volcanic island located just south of mainland South Korean, and west of southern Japan, and only one of two places in the world where this type of diving is found.
Due to Japanese colonization, in the late 19th century, a heavy tax was imposed on male incomes on the island. To circumvent this, women began taking up their husbands' occupation of diving, and quickly became the bread winners for their families. This shift of power from one gender to the other lead to the development a unique matriarchal society on the island, at a time when the rest of Asia was subscribed to the more traditional patriarchal family unit. The occupation of diving however, was socially frowned upon due to it's extremely laborious nature, as well as it's direct benefit to the Japanese, who were the primary consumers of the divers' catch. In spite of this, diving continued to be a profitable means of earning a living until recently.
In light of the growing tourism on Jeju Island, younger women, who hail from Haenyeo mothers and grandmothers, are seeking contemporary occupations, resulting in the decline of female divers. In the last 50 years, the number of Haenyeo has decreased from 30,000 to a mere 3,000, leaving the majority of today's divers over the age of 60.
In modern times, these women have come to understand that their occupation and role it once played in society has changed significantly. Though they respect their culture, and history, the health problems that come from diving, their ability to send their children to university, as well as the existence of other means of collecting sea food, lead them to believe that allowing their traditional ways to fade is best from them and their families. On the other hand, the local government on Jeju, is doing their best to preserve the Haenyeo culture and inform the world of their unique lifestyle and history. The government has gone as far as to set up a diving school on the island, where they encourage tourists and young Korean women, to attend classes and learn how to dive like the Haenyeo.
Through the art of the moving picture, Kevin and Alex will share with the world an intimate portrait of this fleeting culture, as well as explore the dichotomy that exists between how the traditional divers and the government view the future of the Haenyeo. Regardless of the two differing viewpoints, Kevin and Alex believe that the documentation of the Haenyeo culture is a necessity in terms of preserving the history of Jeju-do and South Korea. This truly unique lifestyle not only shines as a feminine occupation passed on generationally for centuries, but also has the potential to broaden global horizons and shed new light on the human condition.
Risks and challenges
Just like any other artistic venture, Haenyeo has a fair number of possible problems in terms of production and logistics. Primarily, these problems surround travel and shooting in a foreign country, where weather and people can be unpredictable.
We have taken all necessary steps in order to ensue that the travel aspects of the film will go as smoothly as possible. We have booked our plane tickets well in advance, and have taken all of the necessary precautions to ensure that our equipment arrives safely, and promptly.
We have also reached out to our community and have found a fellow student, Daye Jeoung, a native of Seoul and frequent visitor of Jeju, who will be accompanying us on the trip as a guide, translator and producer.
Also, we have been fortunate to make contact with a recent Drexel University graduate who lives on Jeju Island, has had contact with the Divers, and is willing to serve as our host once we arrive.
Though unforeseen problems tend to arise in filmmaking, preparedness is the best way to combat them. We feel that with a solid production plan, as well as friends in Korean and Jeju, we will be able to overcome whatever obstacle may present itself.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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