Minnesota filmmaker's doc considers contested island in Sea of Japan
Matthew Koshmrl of Chisholm spent six years with the subjects of "Land of My Father" — people fighting for Dokdo Islands' return to South Korea.
On a street corner near the front gate of the National Assembly of Japan in Tokyo, Noh Byeong-Man regularly protests Japan's claim on the rocky points of land in the Sea of Japan. He wears traditional Korean clothing called hanbok with "Dokdo belongs to Korea" written on it and waves the flag of South Korea, the country he believes has rights to the controversial islands. Officers stand close by and have given him a time limit to get out his message.
"Dokdo belongs to Korea!" he yells. "Armed invasion isn't the only Japanese invasion! Claiming Dokdo in your textbooks is also an invasion!"
Noh's passion for Dokdo Islands is abstract. He's a farmer who rents the land in Namwon, South Korea, that his father once owned, and he is responding to his elder's history. His father was taken to Japan as a teenager, a forced labor victim who suffered insult, injury and torture. He has picked up the reins on his father's rage about Japan and filtered it through to Dokdo.
Noh's is one of two personal stories told in Chisholm filmmaker Matthew Koshmrl's "Land of My Father," a gripping feature-length documentary that tells the tale, both familial and historical, of Dokdo Islands, land that Japan refers to as Takeshima. It plays at 5 p.m. Friday as part of Duluth Superior Film Festival — this year a weekend event with all screenings at Zinema 2. A question-and-answer session will follow.
A 2018 travel story in National Geographic magazine presented a description of the conflict over this grouping of islets and rocks: Dokdo had been recognized as a Korean territory until Japan's 35-year occupation of Korea in the early to mid-1900s. The islands were returned to Korea after World War II, according to Korea, or not, according to Japan. Meanwhile, while they are currently claimed by Japan, it is Korea that occupies the islands.
National identity is important to Koreans, a man tells Koshmrl and crew in an on-the-street style interview.
"Dokdo represents one of the key national characteristics of Korea," he added. "We've always been taken over by other countries. So, protecting what is ours became important."
The island, which is at a midway point between Japan and Korea, attracts tens of thousands of Korean tourists every year, and is a trip that requires two ferry rides, an overnight stay, and a hope that the weather allows for safe docking.
Once there, visitors have less than a half-hour to touch ground, take in the land, pose for photographs.
Koshmrl's other subject, Choi Gyeong-Suk, has a connection to Dokdo that is more concrete. Though it's a tricky habitat, she lived there alongside her father, the island's original resident, and a small crew of fishermen who farmed for sea cucumbers and abalone. She returned in the mid-1980s with her husband and made news when she was the first to give birth on the island.
Now she runs the Choi Jong-Deok Memorial Foundation to honor her father, but she still must obtain special permission from the government to more thoroughly tour the grounds where she grew up and collected conch shells.
The making of the doc
Koshmrl, a Twin Cities native, moved to South Korea in 2009 after graduating from Emerson College with a degree in documentary filmmaking. A year-long visit turned into four years, and in the process of living there and working for an arts and culture magazine, he became interested in the topic of this contested land and the people who make the trip to see it.
"Being the last manifestation of that (Japanese) occupation was very powerful," he said.
He returned to the United States to get a Master of Fine Arts in film production from the University of Texas, but Dokdo remained on his mind as a documentary subject.
"Being an immigrant to South Korea, this was a way for me to understand a country I plan to spend a good amount of time in my life," he said.
Alongside Korean co-producers, he found people advocating to keep Dokdo a Korean territory, whether they were people who experienced the occupation firsthand or from a younger generation. He ultimately whittled it down to the specific stories of Noh and Choi, who were both connected via their fathers.
These two stories, he said, weren't being told.
Koshmrl spent six years working on the project and collected more than 300 hours of footage, including pivotal and passionate moments: the fallout on travelers when a trip to Dokdo is delayed, a family dinner with a harsh twist.
Koshmrl speaks an elementary level of Korean, he said, and relied on translators to communicate in real time. He uses cinéma vérité style — observational filmmaking that focuses on authentic dialogue and avoids effects — to capture intimate family conversations, altercations with police officers and Noh's tragic Plan B for being heard.
Meanwhile, Dokdo is a spectacle in itself, a collection of rust shades and deep green, triangular-shaped formations on vertical islands. A steep staircase is set into a cavern between hills. Choi pulls sea snails from the dark blue water.
Koshmrl, who recently took over as the director of Duluth Superior Film Festival, has family roots in Chisholm and moved to the Iron Range about three years ago. He is a freelance documentary filmmaker whose work includes coverage of paleontologists in Antarctica, a commission by the National Science Foundation that earned him the Antarctic Service Medal from the United States Congress.
He also created a documentary about Valentini's, the Iron Range restaurant that has family ties. It played on WDSE-TV as part of a series "In This Place."
His short "The Poachers" played at the DSFF in 2015.
He said his work on "Land of My Father" got him thinking about generational identity. His deep roots on the Iron Range brought him to northern Minnesota, where he spent time with his grandmother and recorded her memories while she was struggling with dementia.
As the pandemic made it hard to connect with humans, he found cattle to be a promising subject.
"I moved here for family and then really moved here to keep working on a film about cows," he said. "Now I've been here and I plan on being here. I've been able to find really interesting subjects and ideas."