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Ghosts of Jeju: The history behind the resistance to a naval base on Korea's island of peace
When Maine-based filmmaker Regis Tremblay started digging into the history of the protest against the South Korean government’s construction of a naval base in the tiny village of Gangjeong on scenic Jeju Island, he interviewed Charles Hanley, former Associated Press reporter and co-author of the war crime expose Bridge at No Gun Ri, who told him “you have no idea the magnitude of the issues you are getting into here.”
And actually, Tremblay admitted, “I didn’t. I thought I was going to go to Korea and do a film on just another anti-base protest.”
Tremblay has filmed and produced his own TV film documentaries on a variety of environmental and social issues, including coverage of Maine’s Occupy Movement, and actions against the Tar Sands Pipeline. Covering the human interest side of a demonstration was not new to him.
He heard about the ongoing activities of villagers on Jeju Island from his friend Bruce Gagnon, who heads up the organization Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, and thought the issue was worthwhile.
The situation on Jeju Island, however, is far from just another demonstration against a military base, Tremblay soon found out. He did, as Hanley predicted, get much more than he bargained for. The film, The Ghosts of Jeju, is the product of a mind-bending, life-changing year of travel and research, and he is now promoting and touring with it.
The film is making the rounds of peace and justice organizations, particularly through the Veterans for Peace, whose experts are quoted in the film. There will be a screening in St. Paul, sponsored by the local chapter of Veterans for Peace, on November 9, and the filmmaker will go on to Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington in the same trip.
The Jeju story takes in the historical oppression of the Jeju people, going back to before the Korean War, and details the military manipulations of the Korean and the U.S. government to position a base between China and Japan. It is also about an ancient and sustainable way of life and irreplaceable natural resources that are being literally dynamited out of existence to make way for U.S. military expansion, aided by Korea.
It has all the elements of a great epic drama ---- the threat of environmental devastation, the loss of a traditional way of life, a fight by a small and determined group of ordinary people against huge geopolitical forces, the specter of peaceful non-violent resistance against the military machine ---- except that it is all true.
In order to understand the tragedy of Jeju, Tremblay decided that the film must describe the history as well as the current situation of the people there. Like most Americans, he said, he knew little about the U.S.’s long military history in Korea, and the many detrimental effects of that influence on Koreans’ lives.
Fortunately, the Jeju Islanders have documented their modern history well; there is even a museum to help visitors interpret it. The film draws from its archives and other documentation.
With careful attention to detail and chronology, Tremblay lays out the case justifying the Gangjeong villagers’ fervent protest against yet another military oppression of their island, highlighting the role of the anti-base activists, including many Korean Catholic priests and nuns, ordinary Korean people, and activists from many other countries. He also explains the endangered marine life on rare coral reefs now being dredged out of existence, and the villagers’ simple and sustainable lifestyle that will be lost once the base is built.
The result is a persuasive film that is shocking and educating audiences in locations world wide. “American audiences are reacting with disillusionment, anger, and disbelief,” he said. “They cry. It has really been amazing.”
In August, the film was screened in Madison, Wisconsin for the Veterans for Peace conference. “About 60 people crammed into a small room, standing room only, and when it was over, we had to go right into the banquet.” There was so much buzz about it after the screening, and demand by others to see it, that they scheduled a second screening the next day.
Grassroots activists in this country and more than a dozen foreign countries have been spreading the film from one city to the next, Tremblay said. Gagnon took the film to the annual meeting of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space in Sweden this summer. From there, the international members brought the film back to their countries, which began an informal international distribution that is widening the film’s reach. Gagnon also went to Hawaii, the Philippines, and Australia with the film. In addition to the Vets for Peace chapters, the film has been distributed by some Christian activist groups, Quaker organizations, the womens’ activist group Code Pink, and others.
Some volunteers have committed to hosting multiple screenings. Tremblay said one activist in Ireland “has five different screenings scheduled, and one will be held when the Gangjeong mayor Dong Kyun Kang will be visiting there.”
Other more traditional routes of distribution have not been as fruitful. Tremblay said he has entered the film into 17 film festivals, but and it was accepted by only two. So far, he has found no commercial distributor for the film. For the time being, he said, he is powering down these more expensive methods, and concentrating on a person-to-person and group-to-group method. He will also appear this fall at several New England colleges, including Boston University and at an event held by the Korean student organization of Boston College, to which writer/activist Noam Chomsky has been invited.
Tremblay was still in the early stages of learning about Jeju history when he was on the island to film the protests in 2012. He described how he was told by several people how he would not really understand the history until he visited the “April 3 Museum,” which documents a massacre that took the lives of thousands of Jeju Islanders. The massacre occurred starting on that date in 1948, in response to an uprising of the people there, and the oppression and genocide continued in several incidents until 1950. The uprising was then characterized by the government as a Communist plot; it is now seen as simply a peasant rebellion.
The cruelty of that massacre, during which over 30,000 women, children, and elderly people were shot down and villages were burned, is seared into the cultural memory of that place. The leadership of the Korean military by the U.S. military at that time is documented in detail in the museum exhibits.
During his trip to Gangjeong village, he said, the atmosphere was informal and welcoming. He hung out with the activists and the people of the village who are farmers and fishermen. As a former Catholic priest, Tremblay was welcomed by the protesting priests there as one of their own. He was up close and personal with demonstrators, who are students, executives taking a leave of absence from their jobs, foreign activists of every stripe, journalists, elderly people, and many Christian and some Buddhist peace activists.
Certain American celebrity activists and writers have taken up the cause, including Gloria Steinem, writer Noam Chomsky, and film director Oliver Stone. Tremblay was able to interview Stone for the film. He took a lot of video documenting the struggles and brave persistence of the demonstrators, some of whom have been on the site for years. The story was compelling on its own, but he still did not have a clear idea of the agenda behind the present predicament.
“The elders of the village would have me to their homes, or would come out at night and they’d bring makkoli and beer, at 10 or 11 o’clock at night. And I didn’t realize it then ---- because I only went to the museum on my way off the island ---- that these people were survivors of that massacre. They are in their 70s and 80s now.”
His trip to the artistically-striking April 3rd (Sa-sam or 4-3) Museum, in the company of artist Gil-chun Koh, who created sculptural installations there depicting the dead and dying Jeju people, was illuminating for the filmmaker. “I went in there and started reading the stuff on the walls and watching a couple of the videos they had, and it was a chronological story of what the Americans had done, even what their names were.” The Jeju Islanders’ reality became clearer to him, he said. “I started getting angry, and then started getting very emotional.”
During the flight on the way home, he said “I felt very conflicted,” he said. He suddenly did not know how to tell the story of the protest apart from its historical context, and he knew that integrating the complex history of the place would be difficult to do in the film. He talked to author and journalist Charles Hanley at that time, as well as to Korean history scholar and author Bruce Cumings. “I went down to the National Archives, and found a lot of information, and some horrible pictures of what happened there. They are not even classified any more. And I then
started to realize I had an idea how I was going to tell it.”
The filmmaker also requested information from the museum’s curator through Gil-chun Koh. “The curator ended up sending me eight DVDs of footage and photographs and interviews with survivors of the massacre,” he said. Some of that footage is included in the film.
In addition to the modern history of Jeju Island, the film also delves into the geopolitical importance of that area between China and Japan, where the U.S. could potentially cut off China’s oil shipments in a war. It discusses evidence that the U.S. has decided to dominate space in violation of international law; using the type of missiles carried by the submarines to be docked at the Jeju base.
It also talks about the irony of Jeju Island’s recent designation as an “Island of Peace” by the Korean government, in light of the government’s complete reversal of its pledge to keep Jeju peaceful, negated by the building of a naval installation there.
Bruce Gagnon, who lives nearby in Maine, came in towards the end of the editing. “At that point, it was going to end on a very depressing note, and he said ‘you cannot do that. You have got to leave the audience with some sense of hope and inspiration.’ I knew he was right.”
He ultimately used some photos of a colorful “Grand March for Peace” in Jeju during which supporters walked around the whole island. For music, he ended with an inspiring alleluia chorus from a piece he heard at a concert at the nearby Bowdoin College. “It was amazing how it all came together.”
Tremblay is always asked if the Jeju site can be saved from development as a naval base. The harbor has now been dredged, and the famous landmark Gangjeong Rock has been dynamited to make way for submarine bays. “At this point, my answer is no,” the filmmaker said. “The base is going to be constructed, and the villagers are going to have to move, and they are going to build housing for 8,000 marines, which will envelop the village.”
In discussions after a screening, the filmmaker said, people often ask what they can do. “My response is that with knowledge comes responsibility. And that the least we can do is to amplify the voices of the people of Gangjeong village, and that people can share the film with as many people as they can reach out to. And that is exactly what I see happening now with the film,” he said.
Additionally, the villagers still need support for their efforts to defend their civil rights, Tremblay reflected, and it helps them to know there is support coming from the outside. “They are so beaten down and depressed now, that any support from outside gives them a real boost of energy,” he said.
Looking at the issue more broadly, Tremblay said “If you or I or maybe this film can do anything, it may be to slow down or stop this militarism and the advance of the empire. People get that. That is my real hope. And this film is not going to be one of these one-and-done type feature films, where people see it and forget about it. This thing has taken on a life of its own. It is somehow connecting.”
© 2013 Korean Quarterly