Romin Lee Johnson (’16) Receives First Marlon T. Riggs Fellowship in Documentary Filmmaking

September 25, 2015

Romin Lee Johnson, a second-year student in the Graduate School of Journalism, has been named the inaugural Marlon T. Riggs Fellow in Documentary Filmmaking.

Johnson, 31, is the first to be awarded the Riggs Fellowship, funded by production company Signifyin’ Works, the Ford Foundation, The Filmmaker Fund and other private gifts. It is a key part of the J-School’s campaign to invigorate documentary filmmaking in the tradition of Henry Hampton, Alain Resnais, Les Blank, Lourdes Portillo, John Grierson, and Marlon Riggs himself. Riggs, a gay black man, produced the landmark documentaries “Tongues Untied,” “Ethnic Notions,” and “Black Is… Black Ain’t,” among other films.

Johnson’s work also uses personal identity as a lens to examine race, culture, and class.

He is currently developing a documentary that focuses on international adoption in contemporary South Korea. Johnson, who grew up in the United States, and his wife, who grew up in China and Hong Kong, are both half-Korean and half-Caucasian American. They moved to South Korea with their children in 2010. “In a strange way, Korea felt like home,” he said. The family stayed for three and a half years.

Johnson supplemented his teaching income there with freelance projects, including photographing dozens of international adoptions for adopting families. “I’d get goosebumps going in,” he said of the more than 30 adoptions he witnessed. “A lot of these families had spent two to three years and done tons of paperwork to get there.”

His film will explore how the South Korean government is steadily restricting international adoption in favor of promoting domestic adoption, the rates of which have historically been low. The result is that children, most of them put up for adoption by single mothers, become “stuck in these foster homes for longer and longer.” Others are adopted by internationals, and are raised between racial and geographic spaces. “The reason I’m at Berkeley is to make [the adoption] film. I needed the space, the time, the structure, and the energy to do it,” Johnson says.

Johnson is not adopted, but he grew up navigating cultural divides. “I’ve struggled with my own identity for a long time. Not feeling white enough in America, not Korean enough in Korea. [My wife and I] both have that feeling of cultural displacement,” he says.

Identity is a common thread in Johnson’s work; other projects in development include a piece about his relationship with his father, a Caucasian “Occupy Oakland hippie” from Maine.

Johnson graduated from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Purchase in 2008 with a degree in Media, Society, and the Arts. “I wanted to know not just how to make a film, but why it matters,” he says. He admires documentaries like Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County, USA,” a piece of verite filmmaking about a miners strike in Kentucky. “You have to stick with the story for a long time,” he says, “and you have to invest the time.”

This thoughtfulness is one of the qualities that distinguish Johnson’s work. “Your internal interpretive space is at the core of what filmmaking is,” says Orlando Bagwell, acclaimed filmmaker and director of the Jå_School’s documentary program. “Romin is a skilled photographer, and has a very strong visual sense, but whenever he’s in class, he’s probing the reasons why we do it, rather than what we do. That’s what makes his work individual.”

“I know that I’ll be able to work with the people I’ve met at Berkeley 20 or 30 years in the future,” Johnson says. “I feel grateful to be here, and honored to receive the Riggs Fellowship.”

Marlon Riggs was a J-School professor and alumnus, a groundbreaking filmmaker whose work focused on representations of African-American identity and homophobia in America. The Riggs Fellowship funds the education of promising students who report on subjects of social and cultural import to the American people. Johnson’s documentary work, concerned with Asian å_American identity and cultural displacement, continues the legacy of social discourse for which Riggs is remembered.

Orlando Bagwell met Riggs when the American Film Institute put them on a panel together, and they remained close until Riggs’ early death from AIDS complications in 1994. Bagwell says of Romin Johnson, “his contributions to the class reminded me of my old friend Marlon Riggs. He embodies a lot of how Marlon was: how he talked to you and with you, and had original ideas about how he was going to approach the work.”

Learn more about Marlon T. Riggs and the Riggs Fellowship.

Written by Melissa Batchelor-Warnke (’17)

 

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