A lot has happened since Christine Ahn led a collective of 30 women, among them artists, activists and historians from countries ranging from Zimbabwe to Japan, on a peace walk across North Korea to South Korea in 2015. The border crossing brought plenty of international attention with no less than Gloria Steinem leading the way from Pyongyang down to Seoul, but while the world could see a graceful symbolic march, what Deann Borshay Liem captured as she tagged along with a camera crew was far messier, making all that the group achieved together even more impressive when the odds were stacked against them.
In “Crossings,” Liem details what a perilous path the women took if not physically then politically as they carried out the diplomatic mission, holding symposiums on both sides of the border to talk to survivors of the Korean War and aiming to mend fences where they can while presenting a view of both countries to one another and to the world that is more reflective of their reality than the images that have been consecrated in people’s minds for over a half century. Ahn doesn’t even have to step foot on Korean soil to see how entrenched those viewpoints are when the logistics of the peace walk are questioned at every turn, from obvious concerns that her group can cross the demilitarized zone in Panmunjom without fear of aggravating the armies on either side or choosing which landmarks they should visit out of respect for the hosts of the country they’re in versus appearing as if they’re supporting past actions with which they do not agree by standing next to certain monuments.
Not only do the women encounter resistance to their march from those they need permission from in the governments of North and South Korea, but within their party, as the military waffles on what they’ll allow and some fear never being able to cross back to their side of the border again, the tensions of the well-intentioned group reveal the burden that Koreans have had to endure now for multiple generations, living in fear of what even a minor misstep could lead to and fomenting distrust. “Crossings” details how this feeling is particularly acute for women, who have long played second fiddle to men in international relations, though their collective efforts have been successful in resolving a number of conflicts around the world, from the Troubles in Ireland to ending the Second Liberian Civil War and as the film reflects on how history can hold back progress between North and South Korea, it also shows how the delegation has learned from the past how to overcome any dismissal that comes their way.
After the film made its world premiere last fall at the Hawaii Film Festival, “Crossings” is now beginning to cut across oceans as it makes its West Coast premiere at the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival and Liem spoke about how like her subjects she set out to create something undeniable with her latest doc, charting impact that may take place quietly one step at a time but ultimately goes a long way.
How did this come about?
Christine Ahn, the founder of Women Cross DMZ, and I met each other in the Bay Area as part of the Korean American community and she and I actually traveled to North Korea on a research trip before for a project that I was interested in pursuing about the North Korean famine. She was also interested at the time on working on issues around food security and sustainable agriculture in North Korea and a couple of years later, she had this dream about divided families and decided to bring a group of women together to go to North Korea and cross into the South to draw attention to this unending Korean war. So having been involved in different Korean peace and reconciliation issues in the past, I decided, “How could I not go?” I jumped at the chance and raised some money, brought a crew together, and we followed the women throughout the whole journey.
You see what a logistical nightmare it is for Christine to organize. Was that burden on your shoulders as well?
It was hard. It was very rigorous. We had a very small crew and it was challenging. One of the funny stories that was that we wanted to cross by foot at Panmunjom, where the [Joint Security Area’s] blue buildings are. And there was a big question about what to do with all the luggage because we didn’t want the women to be crossing dragging their luggage, so I had rented this huge collapsible cart to take with us to North Korea, and it weighed a ton, but it could have accommodated all the luggage and the women could’ve been beautiful and crossed the DMZ. [laughs] But it was challenging getting there and filming. Nadia Hallgren, who is the cinematographer, did an amazing job.
This film weaves in the tortured history of this border so elegantly – the one sequence that was really mind-blowing was to learn of the 1951 delegation made up of 22 women that informed the U.N. of all the places that had been destroyed in North Korea, only to have the report dismissed. What was it like talking to Suzy Kim about that and constructing that sequence?
Suzy’s a professor at Rutgers and she’s an amazing historian. She actually discovered that footage in a Russian archive and she became fascinated with this story. There had been some still photographs that were published in various accounts of the war, including a book by Bruce Cumings, so there was photographic documentation of this journey, but no archival footage until she found this archive. This group of international women from around the world went to North Korea during the war in 1951 at a time that was quite frightening because Truman had talked about possibly using the atomic bomb in the North to bring a swift end to the war, so there was a lot of concern about the impact on civilians. And for this group of women to go there and actually document what happened, listing specific schools and churches and buildings that had been bombed, it was an amazing task that they did. It was on film and [Suzy] had to pay to have it digitized, but she was kind enough to share it with me and I was just amazed with it. Then she connected me to the archive so that we could actually license it for the film.
When we were on the journey itself, my main goal was to try to document as much of the women’s journey as possible and to be present and full and capture as much of the conversation. It was challenging because we were a small crew and so much was going on. But in the edit process, I really discovered that this journey that the women undertook would be impossible to understand unless you have some historical context, so I started bringing in the historical material and that part was quite complicated. It’s like, “How much does an audience need to know in order to really understand what the women are trying to do and to understand that this conflict never ended and the reasons why it never ended and the U.S. role in the conflict.”
Was there anything that took this in a direction you hadn’t expected?
What was interesting to me was I had been to North Korea before several times, and I had an idea of what to expect, and some of the women had been there before, others hadn’t. But I became quite fascinated with the women who hadn’t been there before, who had been active in other conflict zones, but did not know much about North Korea and did not know that the war had never ended officially. Part of my task as a filmmaker was to listen to what their authentic concerns were and to hear them and to incorporate those concerns in the film. There were a lot of questions about, “Is what we’re seeing real? Is this authentic? Is this all propaganda?” Those kinds of questions and the women really struggled with that. And in the end, I think they came away with not having all the questions answered, but having made human connections with the women they met and coming to understand the devastating impact that the war and the ongoing sanctions have on daily lives, and in the end, that is the message of the film.
You’ve also said before it was interesting to talk to the translators about changing attitudes in North Korea as well.
Yeah, the two translators that I became very interested in were young modern women of North Korea and they decided to do this job of translating during our delegation because they wanted to practice their English. I was really interested to learn, first, what were their lives like and what were their views on kind of the typical female sphere of marriage and relationships and jobs and how do you balance those things? But also, I became interested in how they were viewing the women and what’s fascinating to me is that I think their perceptions began to change about U.S./North Korea relations as they came to know the women [on the walk] and speak with them. That was a really interesting process to witness.
What was it like being at the symposium where North Korean women offered testimony about their experience during the war? I was amazed at how close the camera was able to get to the women telling their stories when it was an official event.
Yeah, Nadia Hallgren is amazing at handheld work, and that was all handheld. We did have one wide stationary camera on tripod for the cutaway, but the rest of it was handheld and our goal was to try to get as intimate as possible. I was concerned that there would be some pushback in terms of, “Stay away,” but there wasn’t, so both J.T. Takagi, the sound person, and Nadia were able to get really close and those moments of the film are, to me, really important because when you hear testimonies about the Korean war by North Korean civilians, it’s very hard to digest that for Americans and metabolize it as something that’s authentic and real. Some viewers will look at those testimonies and say, “Oh, it’s all North Korean propaganda.” But I don’t believe that because their stories very much correspond to other war survivors’ testimonies that I’ve both taken and read about and researched and how it’s shot is particularly important in the sense of making those stories accessible to people in a Western audience.
Having that closeness and intimacy was important to me because I always come to this phrase that John Bolton said once when he was a UN ambassador, “How do you know the North Koreans are lying? Their lips move.” So if you always assume that everything that comes out of the mouth of North Koreans is untrue, then where does that leave us in terms of possible diplomacy or the possibility of getting to know them as just people?
As the film outlines at the end, both a lot has changed since the time of the walk and at the same time, almost nothing at all. What was it like cutting this together?
The editing was completed during COVID and I did decide when Donald Trump got elected and things really heated up with the possibility of a bloody nose strike on North Korea. I felt very important to keep going on that trajectory and follow the women as they continue to build their global network, so the film took a long time to complete. That arc for me is important and I know it makes the film long, but as a Korean American and as someone who has witnessed these ups and downs, you see those ups and downs within the span from 2015 to 2021 and that’s instructive for us to know as an audience.