NEA Arts Magazine

Telling Tales

Katahdin Produces Documentary Filmmaking Outside the Mainstream

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Closeup of hands holding three small photos young Korean girls

Filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem searches for the real Cha Jung Hee in a documentary produced by Katahdin Productions. Photo by Chelsea Walton.

In 1966, the Borshays, a California family, adopted eight-year-old Cha Jung Hee from South Korea. Or so they thought. The real Cha Jung Hee had been reclaimed by her family days before the adoption. Instead, the little girl the Borshays named Deann was given Cha Jung Hee's name and told to keep it secret by the orphanage, who then erased her previous identity. This compelling story is the subject of Deann Borshay Liem's autobiographical documentary, provisionally titled In Thee Matter of Cha Jung Hee.

In The Matter of Cha Jung Hee is just one of the compelling films currently in progress at Katahdin Productions. Founded in 2003 by Lisa Thomas, the mission of the Berkeley, California-based company is "to tell compelling stories often ignored by mainstream media -- stories that inspire, engage, and even enrage." As Katahdin's executive director, Liem oversees the company's fundraising, outreach, and other strategic initiatives, allowing other filmmakers to have a similar chance to tell their own stories.

Among other Katahdin projects are Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action, about Native-American eco-activists, and Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning, which also received NEA support. The Garden, a Katahdin-sponsored film about a community garden in south central Los Angeles, was nominated for a 2009 Academy Award for Best Documentary, having taken top honors in 2008 at SILVERDOCS and the Camden International Film Festival.

In The Matter of Cha Jung Hee was seeded by a Sundance Production grant, and Katahdin received support from the Arts Endowment for post-production activities. "I'm really grateful to the NEA for supporting the project," said Liem. "It's a seal of approval for other donors and other funders. The NEA review process is very rigorous and having undergone that peer review and getting funds is a great boost for any project to move forward."

Liem's film focuses on three women, all named Cha Jung Hee, who are all the same age as the filmmaker. Liem also interviews other Korean adoptees from around the world about their own struggles with issues of identity. "I decided to use this story of searching for this girl, Cha Jung Hee...as an opportunity to explore the history of international adoptions from Korea and the broader context of trans-racial international adoption."

In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee will air in 2010 on P.O.V., PBS's long-running showcase for independent nonfiction films, which also receives NEA support. Liem plans to develop a curriculum guide for schools and a discussion guide for general viewers. In addition, she is working to carry on the work her personal story has inspired by connecting the approximately 200,000 Korean adoptees all over the world and their families through online social networking -- a service she hopes will one day grow to include adoptees of any ethnicity.