National Post

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Tuesday, May 02, 2000

Everyone sees what they want to see
They never fought, says the 16-year-old. They argued constantly, says her brother. Welcome to the legacy of divorce, as seen in a new documentary
Brenda Bouw
National Post



Sixteen-year-old Marni says she watches Jerry Springer because it makes her own family look functional.


Chris Bolin, National Post
Documentary filmmaker Sun-Kyung Yi

Sun-Kyung Yi spent four years putting together her latest documentary, Divorce What I See, about the emotional ups and downs of a marriage breakup as seen through the eyes of a child. It wasn't until the final editing process, though, that Yi realized making a film about the financial and emotional battles of a broken marriage could be as difficult as the event itself.

Her goal was to show the divorce from a unique perspective, that of 16-year-old Marni, the youngest of the four children forced to cope with their parents' breakup.

However, in the final editing process, Yi's lawyers advised her to take out a small piece of the film where Marni discusses her father's past financial problems. Keeping it in would mean the film could not be insured and therefore could not be shown in public.

As a result, an edited version of Divorce What I See will premiere tomorrow night at the Hot Docs international film festival taking place this week in Toronto. (It will also air on the TVOntario program The View from Here on both May 17 and 21 at 10 p.m.)

Angered by having to take out the few seconds of Divorce, Yi is considering handing out the original version of the film to the festival audience on video.

She believes children are already shut out of the divorce process by adults, including the parents and their lawyers, and says cutting her character Marni's comments has the same effect.

"My argument to the lawyers was that this is her voice, the reason I am doing this film," says Yi, 33, during an interview from her basement apartment in downtown Toronto, which doubles as the office of her film company, Aysha Productions Inc. "By doing this we are censoring her right off the bat. In some respects I feel like I betrayed the subject."

Yi would not discuss the father's financial problems on the advice of her lawyer, but the National Post has confirmed the father was charged with and pleaded guilty to a financial crime several years back.

The filmmaker, who has a handful of documentary credits to her name, including 1998's Thai Girls, about the sale of Asian prostitutes in this country, says she found this film the most complicated to make.

"I didn't have these types of legal problems with the other films, which have all been shown on national TV. Illegal immigrants hiding, no problem. Smuggling women into the country to sell as prostitutes, no problem. Canadians in foreign prisons, OK," says Yi. "Here we are dealing with a middle-class family, ordinary citizens, and for six months plus this legal battle has been going on because of the potential lawsuit that might arise from it.

"The joke inside the office is the film should be called Divorce What I Can't See," says Yi.

Danny Webber, an entertainment lawyer who advised Yi on her film, says the bit -- which was about eight seconds long -- was cut from the film as a precautionary measure.

"It's a normal process that happens regularly," says Webber, adding the comments in the film were flippant remarks made by Marni that were not related to the story. "No part of the story wasn't told because the filmmaker was held back."

While Yi would rather have shown the unedited version, she still believes her film makes a strong statement about the impact divorce has on the children involved.

Critics so far have given Divorce good reviews, but some complain the movie ignores the voice of the father, Allen.

The father refused to participate in the film, along with two of his three sons who went to live with him after the divorce. Yi says while she approached the father, both in person and through letters, she made a choice to not aggressively pursue him further.

Then, while shooting the film in 1998 and part of 1999, she realized having the father in it was not necessary. Yi says that is because the mother, Shelly, and her daughter Marni were obsessed with him, even though they had not seen him in years. "He was absent physically, but emotionally he never left them," Yi says of the father, who lives only a few blocks away from his former wife in a Toronto neighbourhood. "Marni idolizes him, and when I realized that I said to myself, 'I have to show the audience what it is like not to see the father, they have to see what this father is like and make their own judgment.' "

Yi also said she didn't want her filmmaking role to "interrupt the natural progression of father and daughter."

However, she says she did take a lot of abuse from Marni, describing her as the most difficult subject she has ever worked with. There were many times when Marni would hang up the telephone on her or lock herself in her room for hours refusing to co-operate.

"I realized I was the one person who was consistent in her life -- she knew she could take her anger out on me and I'd keep coming back. In pop psychology terms, she had abandonment issues."

Yi says the two had a love/hate relationship and to get her to co-operate she would sometimes threaten to make her older brother Mitchell, who also lived with the mother, the star of the film instead.

Despite the difficulties, Yi was determined to make the film -- an idea she came up with while watching her partner and fellow filmmaker, John Haslett Cuff, go through his own marriage breakup. (Keeping on the theme of marriage turmoil, Haslett Cuff is now developing his own film called Crimes of the Heart: Adultery.)

"I was affected by the emotional impact it had on him, not to mention his child," Yi says.

Her goal was to do a documentary about divorce where the parents simply fell out of love.

Yi found Marni and Shelly after they responded to an advertisement she placed in Divorce magazine in 1997. The more time she spent with the family, the more Yi came to see the different perceptions of the marriage. While Marni swore her parents had a strong marriage and never fought, her brother Mitchell recalls constant arguing.

"The stories are completely different, which is why the film is called Divorce What I See, because everybody sees it differently, they only see what they want to see."

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