‘Crossings’ Continues Deann Borshay Liem’s Career-Spanning Korea Project

Crossings deftly recounts the group’s step-by-step adjustments to the obstacles thrown at them. While it’s tempting to laugh at diplomatic and political absurdity, the respective governments were not amused by Women Cross DMZ’s symbolic gambit to temporarily erase the border between North and South Korea.

A still from ‘Crossings,’ directed by Deann Borshay Liem. (Niana Liu)

Ahn’s tested cohorts include Nobel Laureates Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland, alongside women’s movement pioneer Gloria Steinem and Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin. The group’s goal of advancing peace is rooted in the overriding yet largely unknown fact that a peace agreement was never signed when the conflict was stopped in 1950.

“The Korean War literally did not end,” Liem explains. “We have this armistice that suspended the fighting but no formal peace. The war in many ways is still being prosecuted through policies of isolation, sanctions and threats of military strikes. It’s important to shed light on the U.S. role, not only in dividing the peninsula but continuing the status quo of unresolved conflict. The U.S. can play such a critical role in whether progress is made toward reconciliation and peace, or not.”

For precisely that reason, Liem says, she made Crossings for an American audience. She gives Steinem — the best-known figure to U.S. viewers — ample screen time, without overstating or misrepresenting her influence among the coterie of strong, strategic women from abroad.

While the Women Cross DMZ activists in the film discuss and debate countermoves to logistical hurdles, they weigh how the media (in South and North Korea, to be sure, but all over the world) will spin their words and actions. Yet they are still blindsided when an innocuous comment by Christine Ahn at a group visit to supreme leader Kim Jong-Un’s birthplace — chosen by the activists instead of a proffered, propagandist statue visit — is portrayed by South Korean journalists as sympathetic to the North Korea regime.

A still from ‘Crossings,’ directed by Deann Borshay Liem. (Stephen Wunrow)

“Whenever U.S.-North Korea conflicts arise, we typically see goose-stepping soldiers on Kim Il Sung Plaza or shots of Kim Jung Un that are not very favorable — certain sets of shots that are repeated over and over again,” the soft-spoken Berkeley filmmaker says. “There just isn’t much available, right? I call it North Korea wallpaper: Images that reinforce what we think we know, and what we think we know is very limited and infused with both racial stereotypes and specific stereotypes about the North Korean people.”

Much of Crossings unfolds in North Korea, which gives viewers a nearly unknown perspective of the country and its people that runs against certain preconceptions. At a symposium in Pyongyang attended by the activists, an elderly North Korean woman describes the mutilations she received from a GI during the war. When the Women Cross DMZ group has opportunities to interact with people in public in North Korea, they (and we) judge the local women’s spontaneity and authenticity.

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