A scene from Berkeley filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem’s Crossings, which will receive its national premiere on July 23, 2023. Liem traveled to the border between North and South Korea to document 30 peace activists, including celebrity activist Gloria Steinem, to crossed the Korean demilitarized zone, or DMZ, and urge for a formal peace treaty between North and South Korea. Credit: Jeehyun Kwon

Berkeley filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem traveled to the border between North and South Korea to document 30 peace activists, including celebrity activist Gloria Steinem, as they crossed the Korean demilitarized zone, or DMZ, to urge for a formal peace treaty between the countries. The resulting film, Crossings, will get its national premiere on Sunday. 

Deann Borshay Liem. Courtesy of Liem

Walking through the Joint Security Area, the only section of the border where North and South Korean soldiers stand face to face, left a lasting impression on Liem.

“You can also see why crossing the DMZ holds such deep symbolic and emotional significance for Koreans,” Liem wrote. “To step across the DMZ represents a yearning to restore the wholeness of a nation with two millennia of common history, language and culture, and the integrity of countless numbers of families still torn apart by un-ended war.”

Crossings places footage of the activist group’s controversial 2015 border walk alongside historical and contemporary newsreels that paint an image of U.S.-North Korea relations. Its central protagonist, Korean American peace activist Christine Ahn, makes the case that U.S. foreign policy is the main obstacle to their vision of peace. The armistice agreement in 1953 ended fighting, but was meant to be a temporary truce until they could negotiate a full peace treaty. Peace talks were held in Geneva, Switzerland, but no formal peace treaty was ever signed, so currently, the two Koreas technically remain in a state of war.

In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement, PBS’ WORLD Channel will air Crossings at 7 p.m. Sunday. You can also stream it for free through Aug. 21. 

Berkeleyside asked Liem about her work. This interview has been condensed and edited.

What brought you to Berkeley, and what about the filmmaking community here made you decide to found your documentary production studio, Mu Films, here? 

I came to Berkeley as a student and never left. I’ve lived here now for more than 40 years.

Mu Films is a nonprofit documentary production studio I founded here in Berkeley in 2008 to produce my films and support other documentary filmmakers working on urgent social and historical issues that are often under-reported or ignored in mainstream media. Berkeley is home to a diverse and fiercely independent filmmaking community, so it was natural to establish my production studio here.

Many of your films are centered around themes of adoption, race, identity, family, and now, with Crossings, war and a longing for peace. What draws you to these topics? 

My journey as a filmmaker started with very intimate explorations of my adoption from South Korea by an American family. Both First Person Plural (2000) and In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee (2010) are personal films that examine identity and memory while probing the ethics of international adoption. My work has since evolved to focus more closely on the Korean War, its geo-political underpinnings, and the ramifications of the war on people’s lives over many decades.  

The Korean War resulted in a profound loss of life: 4 million dead, including 3 million Koreans. Seventy years ago, on July 27, 1953, an armistice ended the fighting but no peace treaty was ever signed. Korea remains divided by a heavily militarized border called the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that runs roughly along the 38th parallel. The lack of a formal end to the war goes to the heart of recurring conflicts between the U.S. and North Korea that today could erupt into renewed fighting and a nuclear war.  

While the Korean War is seared into the national consciousness of Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, in the United States, the war is referred to as the “Forgotten War.” My work challenges and complicates this dominant narrative. Films like Memory of Forgotten War, Geographies of Kinship and the oral history project, Legacies of the Korean War, contribute to a much-needed shift in how the Korean War is understood and provide more nuanced perspectives on Korea’s division and the possibilities of reunification than is normally portrayed in the mainstream media. Crossings takes this complex legacy to the next level, revealing the long history of Korean and international women’s efforts to bring the war to a peaceful resolution.

Crossings follows a delegation of 30 women, including activist Gloria Steinem, who in 2015 set out on a peace walk on the inter-Korean border. Some, like Alex Gladstein of the Human Rights Foundation, have criticized the walk’s organizers for not calling out North Korea’s human rights abuses. In a 2015 NPR article, he described the walk as “a marketing stunt for the North Korean government.” I’m curious what you make of this criticism. Could you tell us about why you felt it was important to document the walk? 

Crossings is about a group of women who decide to speak directly with Korean women, North and South, to learn about how the Korean War and its irresolution impacts their lives. The women’s backgrounds were quite varied, from scholars and artists, to grassroots organizers, humanitarian aid workers, Nobel Peace laureates, and celebrity activists like Gloria Steinem. Their goal was to cross the DMZ from North Korea to South Korea to call for a formal end to the Korean War, the reunification of divided families, and women’s participation in the peacemaking process.

I wanted to document the women’s journey because their effort is a continuation of a long legacy of Korean and international women’s actions to bring permanent peace to Korea. And I thought visiting both North and South Korea could offer rare glimpses into the lives of women on both sides that we rarely see or hear about in the U.S.

During their journey, the women face a variety of political challenges, including being labeled naïve and apologists for the North Korean regime by people like Alex Gladstein. Reminiscent of McCarthyism, these were attempts to discredit and undermine their efforts. But the women were undeterred. The film shows how the women traverse and navigate these minefields and ultimately build greater solidarity as they negotiate their DMZ crossing with the North and South Korean governments and the U.N. Command. Crossings shows the power (and challenges) of collective action and how diverse groups of people can come together for the common cause of peace.

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Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...