Uytae Lee became a filmmaker by accident. Now he teaches you about your city

When STEM tutorial YouTube channels were “popping off” in the early 2010s, Uytae Lee wondered how he could address the lack of comprehensive videos dedicated to teaching people about their cities.

“If people can make physics so compelling and interesting, surely we can make transit policy interesting,” said Lee, now a UBC adjunct journalism professor.

Between undergraduate urban studies lectures at Dalhousie University, then-student Lee watched important city planning decisions unfold at various community engagement events. Through these gatherings, Lee noticed the need for representation of marginalized voices that would be most vulnerable to these proposals’ drawbacks.

“I, along with a group of friends of mine, really felt that there should be more accessible content out there around urban planning,” Lee said. “With the belief that getting more diverse people involved in these conversations would make the planning of our cities better.”

If you’re a connoisseur of all things local policy — finding the solution to gentrification, bringing back front yard businesses, considering a non-capitalist approach to housing shortages — you may well have already run into Lee’s work before. He’s the mind behind the YouTube channel About Here. In his corner of the internet, Lee taps into virtually any issue that public buzz is attending to at a given moment.

“People are having interesting lively discussions around cities now, way more than they were before,” Lee said about About Here.

Lee finds inspiration focusing on Vancouver, so you’ll often catch him covering issues surrounding the city’s housing crisis.

In November 2023, a Vancouver survey for Habitat for Humanity found that 53 per cent of renters or homeowners spend more than half of their household income on housing costs. Additionally, 48 per cent of the sample size worried about missing mortgage or rent payments within the next year.

Eighty-four per cent said owning a home in their community is almost impossible.

Videos tackling something as pervasive and complex as housing can be intimidating for creators and consumers alike.

“My approach to not having a complete mental breakdown while doing a story on housing is to really try to find one sliver — one specific question within this housing crisis we have that I think we can answer within one story,” Lee reflected candidly.

Lee suggests these extensive topics are like a sweater — pulling one thread out risks the whole investigation coming undone.

When asked about whether he would be interested in committing to a longer documentary, Lee said such a project would provide a lot of personal satisfaction.

“It’s [about] whether I have the appetite and the mental fortitude to venture down such a path,” Lee said. “But I think it’d be fun to do. I think given the right amount of resources and time, it’d be very worthwhile doing.”

“If you know anyone that’s willing to fund a trip for me to go to Hong Kong,” Lee hinted, side-eyeing jokingly. “You let me know and we’ll make it happen.”

When the time comes, Lee has a vision to cover Hong Kong’s profitable public transit model.

In About Here’s latest video, Lee weighed in on the limitations of Canada’s regulation of point access block apartments. Within a 12-minute clip, he unpacked something as seemingly trivial as staircases to show that they are a huge barrier to constructing smaller multi-story complexes and maximizing urban sprawl, but with the caveat that they are still controlled for in building codes in the interest of fire safety.

Whether it’s his catchy hooks, the bubbly jazz or lo-fi that underlines his narrations, his dynamic cinematography, stellar delivery of stats and facts or the bite-sized nature of his takes, Lee’s work is uniquely his.

His grounded approach to documentary filmmaking eventually landed him a position with CBC Gem. As a UBC professor, Lee has been co-teaching graduate-level visual journalism alongside Dr. Alfred Hermida, someone he values for embodying “the heart and soul of what journalism is really supposed to be about.”

“People are having interesting lively [online] discussions around cities now, way more than they were before,” Lee said.
“People are having interesting lively [online] discussions around cities now, way more than they were before,” Lee said. Isa S. You / The Ubyssey

Nobody has ever interviewed Lee about his role as a professor at UBC. When asked about it, he laughed and said he needed a moment to collect his thoughts.

He ended up answering right away.

“Being able to teach has been such a privilege,” he said. “A lot of the skills I have, the things I do, they’re incredibly self-taught. At this point, it feels intuitive … teaching really forces you to very explicitly and clearly explain how your mind works.”

Through discussion, guiding his students to develop their own taste and vocabulary for what does and does not work in investigative videography is a cornerstone of Lee’s teaching philosophy. His only disclaimer to students every year is that they’re all learning together.

“I feel a lot of impostor syndrome,” Lee chuckled. “I didn’t get into this through either journalism school or videography school. I completely stumbled into this career … and organically developed these skills.”

At UBC, the only way students can get a formal journalism education is through the School of Journalism, Writing, and Media’s master’s of journalism program or the journalism and social change undergraduate minor.

Post-secondary journalism programs across the country are seeing a decline in enrolment and some have fully shut down as the field shifts toward digital media.

The journalism industry took a further hit last year with the approval of the Online News Act, intended to be a framework for news outlets to gain fair compensation when their content is made available by dominant social media platforms. This means that small newspapers — like student publications — are now limited in the ways they can convey their work.

With the online accessibility of journalism hanging in the air, and Canada facing a nationwide decrease in full-time journalists, community members are concerned about the future of the Canadian industry.

But Lee isn’t. If anything, he believes the profession is fragmenting. In a rapidly changing global landscape, it seems that there is a hunger more than ever for information, but the easy accessibility of social platforms comes at the cost of being more routinely exposed to misinformation.

“The traditional model of journalism looks very much like the writing’s on the wall,” Lee said. “Advertising dollars to fund journalism … that model seems to be just breaking down more and more, year by year. I do think there are, in the absence of that, other models popping up and what I know for sure is that there is a real appetite more than ever for good stories.”

Lee hypothesizes that news outlets will begin to build their business models around specific types of journalism.

“Once you really understand the type of stories you want to get into, you can work backwards and start to understand why and how you might be able to fund those stories.”