Meet (v.) Daniel Kwon
Independent Filmmaker / Barista
Jan. 3, 2017
Daniel Kwon currently resides in Vancouver, working as an Independent Filmmaker and Barista. Born in Chile to Korean parents, Daniel confesses how grateful he is to have been exposed different cultures and perspectives at a young age.
He explains the importance of film in shaping our psyche, and how popular media needs to think more about morals and ethics instead of controlling people through fear, and emphasizes the necessity to really listen and pay attention to other people instead of forcing our own values on them – whether it’s through religion or a personal motto.
Daniel keeps things simple when asked what happiness is to him: Knowing how to approach and solve the problems life unexpectedly throws at you, instead of wishing for a life that's problem-free.
A Korean Kid, Growing up in Santiago
Tell me about your background and upbringing, and how that shaped who you are today.
I think I was fortunate. From one side I got my parents’ cultural influence, which is Korean. Both of them are very Korean. And on the other side, I’m living in a South American culture. It was up to me obviously at the end to decide where to go with this. I think fortunately, I was able to pick what was good for each side, and make it … me.
What can you tell me about the South American side?
South Americans are very emotionally expressive people in general. They like to have company, they like to be with people. I think their integrity is very weak comparing to the Asian culture. But that allows them to enjoy people’s company more than going for work.
The bad side is that they’re very intrusive because of the closeness. There’s absolutely no bubble.
It’s like a double-edged sword.
South Americans in that sense, they’re very good at listening because they’re curious. They say, “Oh, you guys like kimchi. Do you guys like meat? Because in Chile, we eat large amounts of meat. And in Korea I’ve heard that you eat dogs. In Chile we don’t eat dogs.” So that becomes the conversation. If it’s curiosity it’s not racist, right? We’re all different, it’s fair to ask questions like that – it’s more interactive. And South Americans are more welcoming in general.
They will try to speak your language, they will meet your parents – so all that tradition still goes on, which is good. There is a very strong family core. Let’s say every Sunday if you’re out of the house, you will go to your mom’s or the grandma’s and there’s cooking happening.
Korean people also have good traditions. When people become friends, they become friends for a long time. Working ethics are great. Integrity is great. If you say something, it means something. So there’s a sense of responsibility - a consequence. I think Korean people are very quick learners, very precise. I think that’s why Korean cinema is becoming very popular. Korean music and fashion as well.
I’ve tried learning more about my Korean side for a while. But after a couple of years, I got really disappointed.
Koreans give a lot of credit to money – the more money you have, the higher status and the more respect you get. There’s also this hierarchy thing in Korean culture where the older person is automatically superior than you. Sometimes you don’t get the right recognition because of that. I don’t give damn about that. To me, it’s about your merits than your status. Why is it my fault that you’re born earlier than me?
At the end, I do want to learn certain things about Korea. Culture in Korea is very rich. That’s very important, because there’s so many things that we learn from history, it’s worth keeping. Something good about both cultures is that family is very important. Tradition is very important. I feel like that's missing, here in North America.
Life as a Barista / Independent Filmmaker
How long have you been a Barista for?
I’ve been a barista for almost two years now. To be honest, latte art attracted me to coffee. I got so interested that I worked in three coffee shops at the same time to absorb very quick.
I’m definitely not an expert, but I feel very confident about the coffee knowledge that I have. So if someone is shitting me I will know. (laughs)
So where does filmmaking come in?
Filmmaking was a transition from hand-drawn animation. I wanted to tell a full story, but I couldn’t because I realized I was drawing too much with very little results. That’s why I moved into filmmaking. Then photography came along. Storytelling is the main part of films, so writing came along as well.
As an independent filmmaker, how do you get an income?
I have no idea how to sell my stories. And that’s my problem – I’m not a businessman. The only way I know how to now is by crowdfunding. But people don’t trust you, of course. I wish I could find funding to support films, because there is no stability.
Unless I meet a very good, successful producer who is also very clear in mind and ethics – which probably doesn’t exist, but. (laughs)
Even within the independent group, there’s a lot of rubbish. Some people are so lost into their own art. You know, art is an attempt to express beauty. But it gives a lot of room for arrogance, as well.
Some people, when they try to make independent film – sometimes experimental – at the end you think, “What did I just see?” The director can say, “Oh, you guys don’t understand my thing.” But you still have to make your message clear. That’s why people are not investing into independent films, because who knows where this is going to go, right?
What I want to do in films primarily is write something that is meaningful to people, has an emotional connection, has a good message.
I mean if it sells, it’s good, but it’s not my intention to become a celebrity. In fact, if I could be as low-key as possible … I just like the art of filmmaking.
A Filmmaker’s Responsibility / Why We Watch Movies
I think in media, we are a significant influence for what people think, or how they think. So instead of having all of these eye-candy films to entertain people about action, and all of these faulty dialogues, why not make films with good messages? I’m not saying that all movies are like this, but many minimize the ethical factor.
What’s a movie that does this well?
One of my favourite movies is Brooklyn. It talks about an Irish girl that moves to New York, leaving her family behind. I feel a personal connection to that movie, as well.
The reason I got into filmmaking is because there were so many great movies with great dialogues. They always taught you something very ethical – positive. I thought people who made movies like this should be like this too, right?
I mean now there’s this big wave of sexual assaults and all. Obviously, that’s horrible, you’re abusing the power you have. I was so disappointed, because if I wanted to make good films, it’s because my personality or my mind is somewhere alike that – because I agree with the ethics.
I want to make movies to tell and teach, and maybe explore goodness in a clever way. Using storytelling. It’s hard to find people who support that, because it doesn’t sell.
In a world where many watch films for the fight scenes, how do you deliver that message?
A lot of films have a great message and people should think about it and should reflect on it, but they don’t want to do that. I think it’s irrelevant how I do it. What really matters is if the message is delivered successfully.
How can you tell?
It’s hard to answer that question, because you can always try to make your message as clear as possible, but there will be someone who won’t understand. There is a certain level of insightfulness necessary to understand a message, and that I cannot define.
You said people are running away from their problems. Because of that, maybe they’re also looking to run away from their problems by watching films.
I think this is perhaps happening unconsciously – I think people don’t want responsibilities.
People prefer to be brainless because it’s too tiring, unless you are naturally good at something. It is of course tiring. People try to avoid problems because they want to live a good life, and that’s okay - but avoiding problems is not okay.
I think we shouldn’t train ourselves to not let the problem happen, but prepare yourself to solve the problem. And solving problems doesn’t mean you have to create a problem for someone else, right? I think one of the biggest mistakes that people are saying now that is very selfish is saying, “I pursue happiness”.
I think people are very self-centered to start with. So no matter if this is gonna affect you (points at me), “I’m sorry, but I want to be happy too.” (points at himself) It is not a good way to progress in life ethically and morally. ‘Cause you’re not doing a contribution, you’re rather destroying something.
I think if my happiness destroys your happiness, I’m doing something wrong. Most of the time it’s not what you want to get, it’s how you want to get it. And that question is mostly ethical, I promise you. Because it’s important that we always choose the right thing.
I came to the conclusion that the only reason why society does good or stops them from doing something bad is because we are part of a superior being. Because if you and I are sitting here and I wanted your money, what is stopping me from killing you, right? What is stopping me from lying? I think that goodness is a mystery from the superior being.
If you stop thinking about it and you want to go the simple way, then there’s no progression. It’s so hard for us to do a true goodness that is selfless. It is an everyday sort of exercise, like when I’m serving customers all the time. (laughs)
But ultimately if you have integrity, you’ll say, “If my promotion means that you’re getting fired, then I’m not gonna take it.” How many people do you think will do that? I don’t think many will, right? ‘Cause you’ll first think of yourself and say, “But I worked so hard for this.” And there’s all kinds of situations of course, but at the end it’s about making the right choice at the right time.
There is no formula for that. I think there’s intuition for that – you can only analyze yourself and think, “Is this the right thing to do?” If you train yourself to recognize the situation and make the right choice – or the closest you can, then I think things should turn better.
But people don’t want to train themselves. That’s stressful. (laughs)
Focus in Film / God and Religion Aren’t One and the Same
When you make film, what specific message do you like to deliver?
The focus is moral and ethical, a topic that will make you reflect. I think there is also people’s connection with each other – feelings. It’s not wrong to be sensitive. People desire those kinds of things.
If I have the chance, if I become a little wiser and smarter in the future, maybe write something about religion. But not in the way movies have been doing it now. It’s so awful the way it’s done … God’s Not Dead. I’ve seen those movies and they’re bad. If you say, “My film has God, so it’s good”, it’s a bad way of thinking. That’s my major disagreement with religion in film.
I think a lot of people – believers and not believers – they can see beauty. For instance, this one time I was talking with this Italian friend. And he wasn’t a believer, but we got to talk about religion. It was an interesting exchange, because it wasn’t a debate. This guy made some points that I agreed with.
If you talk with empathy, things make sense. And that’s when you learn something new. I have this point of view because I also study it. But I shouldn’t ignore the things that make me a human. Studying the history and progression of religion is also important.
We started talking about God, beauty, about love –and how this is 100% pure. We went hiking the next day and we went to Joffre Lake. I’ve never seen the water at that colour. It was very surreal to me.
And out of nowhere, he says, “If God was somewhere, it should be here.” It was just a comment, but that comment came from an honest point of view from him. That’s when I realized how people – they might hate religion, but that doesn’t mean they hate God.
Maybe they don’t call it that way, because “God” had many names throughout history. To be honest, I’ve had more interesting talks about religion with people who are not religious than with religious people. In fact, more disappointments from the religious people.
Yep. I think it’s part of my duty to get into perspective of different religions to understand. I’ve been with many Christians, and rejections and passive aggressiveness happened very often.
This might be a little strong, but I think belonging to a religious institution is a shortcut. It’s an easy way to find salvation. Let’s say because you want to be told what to do good – and you only have to do it – is easier than finding out what to do.
Again, the thinking process, right? I think there’s a responsibility. If you want to find God, there’s a responsibility towards it.
But often in institutionalized religion there is always the fear factor, and it starts with teaching you about sin, for example. It’s about control. There is always “the rules”, and there is always “the duties”. So at the end, what do I have to do? Nothing. All I have to do is follow it. If you‘re a Catholic and you sin during the week, you confess, and you’re clean again. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a lot more complex than that.
In the end, I don’t think Christianity is the only way. I think all religions are right. People are delivering it wrong. But every religion has a good intention.
But me believing in God doesn’t make me superior to someone who doesn’t believe. Because when I talked about God with this Italian friend of mine, I felt like I learned something new. It was a beautiful way of perceiving beauty, and to show sympathy towards my interests. We’re great friends now.
All of these experiences to me, they didn’t teach me to hate institutional religion, they just made me sharper. Maybe we can’t see God or feel God, but if you name it as love, it’s okay to me.
I can only expand more knowledge by the way I study this, and if you ask me about my passion, this is my real passion. I want to be able to sit down and study this, and hopefully talk about it to people who want to know this. To push religion, it’s not a smart thing to do, or to push God. But the perception that people have for religion, it’s also wrong. It’s sort of misguided because of institutional religion.
At the end, no one wants to feel threatened or feel fear.
So the right thing to do would be to talk about it?
Not exactly. The right thing to do is to put in practice what Jesus taught you. Well, not you, but what he taught in his era, which is, “Love one another.” Think of your brotherhood. Think of your fellow humans as brothers. Love your father as your father loves you – meaning God, right?
It wasn’t even about God sometimes, it was about love. And if you love, you’re doing the will of God. At the end, this is what we want. We want to get along with each other. We want to love each other.
If we are going to die physically and move on into the next step, why do I have to make this awful effort to make people hate me to love God? Why don’t I just love people? That, to me, is more important.
I think we’re in a process of figuring out where God belongs. That’s why there are new religions, as well. Religion is supposed to change. It’s supposed to evolve.
If my way of talking about God brings people to conflict with me, I’m doing something wrong – definitely.
I hope one day you can make a film about it. I’d love to watch it.
I hope so too but I am too far. I am a little pessimistic on that regard. Honest.
Never say never.
(laughs) Sure, I’m not gonna say, “no” to an opportunity, yeah? But I’d rather have conversations like this. There are people who have been very welcoming of this new concept, whether they believe it or not. There are people who in one-on-one conversations, I’m able to say things and they’re able to say things back. And this interaction is what I call successful, no matter if you’re a believer or not – if that interaction is mutually positive, obviously. I don’t have to be the “winner”.
Is that your definition of success? People that come to an understanding – even if it’s a difference of ideas, you don’t have to agree, but you’re both respectful of each other?
To me, the word “success” is very direct into business. So if someone tries to sell me something using the word “success”, you fail already because I know what you want from me.
“Business Success” vs “Progressive Success”
One time, I went to this business meeting. I found out about this through someone else, and I was just curious to see this thing. It was really awkward, ‘cause it wasn’t the pyramid scheme, but it was similar to the pyramid. You would have to buy their products and sell them in their own store, on your own, on your website – basically through your own business, like a third-party distributor.
There was this massive auditorium where everyone was pumped up, “Yes! Let’s make a lot of money!” And then the company started talking about your dreams. “What’s your dream?”, “What do you want to do in your life?”
Once they realize that your dreams are being held up because of money, they will say, “Let’s say you would like to live on an island and drink coconut water all day … in order to achieve that, you need income. But in order to have income, you have to work … So what if you could retire in 5 years?” And everyone’s like – obviously – “We like the idea!”
So they’re using your dream as their product. They use this word, “success” all the time. And all you had to do is get a mentor who was already in your position before, to guide you. And that’s the catch.
You have to follow them exactly by the word, and the rules are very strict. They don’t present you the product or the system before you accept by contract. The contract says, “You, as the apprentice, must follow the mentor’s steps.”
That’s crazy. They use words like that? Like “mentor” and “apprentice”?
Yeah. So you have to follow a mentor for you to learn the system. It was presented in a very logical way. In order to get successful, for you to go to the next level, you have to get 12 people to buy products from this big corporation. That could be through you, or directly.
What was the product?
They were usually things of daily need, like protein bars, foods, health products, things like that. And these people talking good about the products and how you could easily raise a million dollars in the matter of a year, just by doing this job correctly … They give you the good numbers, but they never give you the bad numbers. At the end, they expect you to follow them, because they’re the ones with the secret to get all this money.
So I touched base with a guy who wanted to take me as an apprentice and I tell him, “Hey, I know what this shit is all about, okay? Don’t step on someone else’s dream and make it a business like that. You’re talking about people’s feelings and manipulating them for your own benefits. Your life is not perfect either.” Well I didn’t tell him that exactly, but.
That experience was great for me to reflect over what a “business” means. What “economy” means. What the word “success” means. What the “top of the mountain” means. That doesn’t mean anything, to be honest. At the end, people need other people, right?
Going back to your question – when people say, “I don’t have to agree but I accept your opinion”, I don’t understand what that means. Because I think they bring that up for a reason. They bring that up because they don’t want to fight with each other. But if I was really respecting your point of view without it being my way, I wouldn’t approach it that way. Sometimes it’s the way people approach their ideas that reveals their real intention.
I say that the mutually positive interaction is a success, but not in the business sense. I say success as a way of saying that, “This is a positive progression.”
The end result being positive progress – progress for humanity.
People are smart enough to figure out puzzles, but they’re not “socially” smart, let’s put it that way. Man … If we were socially smart, there would be absolutely no stress. More understanding. More time.
I think art is the key – it's necessary. It’s just … We’re so confused by art. We’re not clear about what beauty is. Again, to me, beauty is related to God – what is pure. The other kind of beauty to me is probably aesthetic. But the beauty of nature, for example, is something that will never fail. So for me, that’s why when my Italian friend said that, I was like, “Fuck. You’re fucking right.
Art / Self-Motivation / Forced Positivity
But if you’re popular, you can sell whatever you want. So how much of art is that person saying, “It’s art”? Art is very subjective, yet still, people can collectively agree on what art is good or bad. How does that process happen?
In my opinion, art is an attempt for beauty. To succeed for everybody, it needs to be absolute. But we’re not absolute, so we can only attempt to make it absolute.
What do you mean by “absolute”?
Absolute means that there’s no room for mistake. There’s no room for refusal.
Yes. Its perfect beauty is undeniable. The reason art cannot be priced – and it should be that way – or maybe artists should be poor, is because art and beauty can’t be measured with money. If we find a way to measure that with money, we’re doing something wrong.
Who or what were your artistic inspirations?
I have none. I think the purest way to do art is by not having any influence. Of course, I admire other artists. I admire Christopher Nolan. He’s probably the only filmmaker who I admire as a storyteller. Because it’s so consistent – there’s a trademark, storytelling-wise and filmmaking-wise. I think his stories are very well thought, and there’s a lot of depth – emotional depth.
If people were able to think about philosophy to reach wisdom, it would be great. Interstellar did that, definitely. There’s a lot of religious and science based concepts there which are so deep – so out of reach, that I could talk about all day. Contact is another one.
What kind of emotion would you want your audience to feel after viewing your work?
I think “emotional” is a good term, because it means you are very sensitive – you became very sensitive and vulnerable. Being vulnerable is not a wrong thing. It’s abusing that vulnerability is what’s wrong. So being vulnerable means you are accepting things in the purest way.
I want them to get the message and reflect on it, think about it, talk. I think that’s pretty general, though. Every filmmaker wants it.
I’m not one of the storytellers that tells everything in the movie. I think there should be room for people to reflect. And I think that should give them a little space to judge and come with conclusions. Maybe some of them get it, some of them don’t. Maybe some of them will start training their minds to get it, which would be nice.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Or a motto or quote that motivates you every day?
That kind of advice – unless it’s perfect, and we’ve been using “perfect” and “absolute” a lot – it’s not worth it. Because you’re not a robot. Every situation is different.
I think a lot of times we pretend to be positive. We pretend to be energetic. We pretend to be successful. But ignoring people’s feelings is the first mistake we’re doing. ‘Cause now we’re being intolerant to people who are being sad. Intolerant to people who are depressed.
I saw this article online how people were posting pictures of their loved ones the day before they committed suicide. And you couldn’t tell from their faces.
For them it was, “My husband was totally fine and happy the day before he committed suicide.” Well of course. Because you won’t fucking listen to them, perhaps. You say, “Okay move on. Don’t be so negative”, and try to ignore it.
Feeling sad is not bad. We’re humans, right? So we should empathize and listen to them. That’s always been the issue. Now we’re reaching a point where we don’t want to hear anymore. Being sad is proof that you desire happiness.
Future Vision / Happiness
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
I don’t know … I wish I could be married already. I wish I could make a feature film, fully funded. I wish I could get my citizenship, because I’m just a resident for now. Hopefully bring my parents here from Mexico.
You’re also going to school.
For joinery. One day, I'd like to have a coffee shop/cabinet making store.
What is your definition of happiness?
I think when I’m clear, I’m happy – not confused.
I think when you’re clear, you’re happy because you figure something out. Even if you have a lot of problems, you know how to solve them. So problems won’t make you unhappy.
I was happy when I won my first award for best documentary, but I didn’t crack a smile. It was more important to me that the emotions of that documentary were delivered to the viewers than the fact we won the award.
I know having a family would make me happy. (laughs) Yeah.
It’s in our DNA.
(laughs) Exactly. Right.
My wife will be my partner for everything. So when couples don’t like to spend time with each other, I don’t understand that. ‘Cause then that means you want some personal space. That means that having your partner is annoying, sometimes – annoying in the sense you feel invaded. I wouldn’t feel like that with my wife or partner, because she should bring me peace, right?
So if I feel that way about my partner …
Hopefully you’re not married by that time.
(laughs) Yeah, exactly.
Clarity. That sounds like a good answer.