The Shorty Awards honor the best of social media and digital. View this season's finalists!

Special Project

Special Project
From the 16th Annual Shorty Awards

Painting Through Pain

Entered in Documentary


Painting Through Pain is a short documentary film that powerfully recounts the journey of K-pop icon Solbi, who suffered from severe anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts after an intense experience with online rumors, derogatory social media comments and continuous cyberbullying. Through an in-depth interview with the singer-turned-artist, the film uncovers a layered story of pain, discovery and recovery. It weaves together archival video of Solbi’s personal life, her visual artistic creations, and present-day footage of her ongoing work. 

Our team initially set out to investigate the issue of cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is a global issue, but keenly felt in South Korea, where several high-profile suicides have been attributed to the mental anguish online harassment can cause, most notably among rising K-pop stars. 

As Solbi mentions in the film, K-pop star Sulli was found dead in 2019 after suffering from severe depression that many say was linked to cyberbullying and hateful comments. Later that year, singer Goo Hara took her own life, after struggling with depression and online criticism. 

Most recently, Rosé, a member of K-pop supergroup BLACKPINK, spoke with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden during the 2023 APEC Summit to address the rampant criticism she faces on a daily basis, and the heavy toll social media commentary has had on her mental health. 

This film was intended to highlight the severity of pain that can be inflicted by online comments, encourage thoughtful discussion about its prevention and promote ways to heal from negative experiences and work through mental health challenges.

Strategy and Execution

Since its rise in the 1990s, South Korean pop music, or K-pop has become a global phenomenon, reaching new heights as a $5 billion industry in 2018 with K-pop companies again making record-breaking sales in 2023. The appeal of K-pop does not only attract English and Korean audiences, but audiences all over the globe. Once we decided that we wanted to investigate cyberbullying as a topic, we knew that we wanted to use K-pop as a way into the story.

We found a producer based in South Korea (Komeil Soheili) and hired him to research and find a subject with a powerful story who could help to humanize the issue. He identified K-pop idol Solbi (a.k.a. Kwon Jian) as a willing participant who is widely known for both her singing and art, and deeply affected by cyberbullying. She proved to be the perfect example of someone open to talking about their personal struggles and actively committed to educating others about the dangers of online bullying and harassment.

Solbi’s team was eager to participate and shared a massive archive of her personal videos and artwork that could aid the film’s storytelling. Komeil filmed a variety of scenes with Solbi, working around her extremely busy schedule.

The biggest challenge was synthesizing Solbi’s unique artistic process with her personal mental health story in the post-production phase. Co-producer and editor Brian Kim ultimately helped shape the narrative of the story under the guidance of commissioning editor Lauren Kawana and senior executive producer Euna Lee.

In the film, Solbi exemplifies the ways in which one can prioritize mental health and recovery. She sought help from a mental health professional, who advised her to draw. Turning to different creative methods, she found a life-saving outlet to empower herself and reclaim space in a world where opinions, good or bad, continue to circulate rapidly. As explained in the film, with her art series “Beyond the APPLE”, Solbi took negative comments targeting her ability as an artist and used them as inspiration to develop new work and commentary on bullying itself. Through her colorful, imaginative art pieces, Solbi in turn, provides critical social commentary on the specific impact cyberbullying can have on our collective wellbeing.

Voice of America understands the complexity of freedom of speech, as it is a key tenet of American democracy and protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution to ensure a thriving public forum. However, the spread of misinformation and the hate speech used against others is not only harmful in political spheres or among celebrities and high-profile figures, but it has severely impacted the mental health of young people around the world.

From the start, our goal was to not only reach Korean and English audiences, but global audiences in all of Voice of America’s target regions, in order to bring this issue of cyberbullying to the forefront and encourage reflection on what we can do collectively, and creatively, to rise above it.


We are proud of the cross-cultural collaboration of this film, which tackles an important subject to all of us around the world who spend a majority of time in online spaces. We are thrilled with the reception of the film through Voice of America’s various platforms including the subscription-free VOA+ app, VOA’s 52 Documentary YouTube channel, and the direct relationship VOA has with thousands of affiliates around the world which enables them to access this film for free and broadcast it to their audience in their respective regions.

Solbi shared the film with her more than 100k followers on social media, who have positively responded to her story and the film itself. We have also seen very positive coverage of the film in Korea, as seen in three separate news outlets (links provided in next section).

We feel this film is a success in both presenting the severity of a problem of cyberbullying to illuminate the harm perpetuated by hateful comments, and also presenting the positive way in which visual art can heal, educate, and offer a chance for reflection on culture and society beyond the confines of language.


Video for Painting Through Pain

Entrant Company / Organization Name

Voice of America


Entry Credits