DMZ Documentary Festival: 101 documentaries in 7 days

DMZ Documentary Festival: 101 documentaries in 7 days

Head to Paju Book City to watch dark and intelligent true stories unfold onscreen
DMZ Korean International Documentary Festival
Even if you’re not a fan, it’s not hard to get excited about documentaries when they’re packaged this appealingly. (Photo: movie still from “After the Apocalypse.”)

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) may seem a curious focus for a documentary film festival; a 249 kilometer-long strip of no-man’s-land that divides the peninsula into North and South Korea, it is a reminder of war, and potentially still deadly.

However, the DMZ Korean International Documentary Film Festival, or DMZ Docs, is focusing on peace in the deadliest zone of the country, with its hope-filled motto: “Peace, Life, and Communication in the DMZ.”

Although DMZ Docs is relatively unknown in the Korean film festival scene, it really shouldn't be, given its unique focus and an attractive, variegated program.

For this year’s festival, more than 100 documentaries from 30 countries will be screened in Paju Book City from September 23 to September 28, along with lectures, forums, and talks.

The opening ceremony will be held at Dorasan Station on the edge of the actual DMZ, a mere 30 kilometers away, which makes for provocative symbolism in a setting that has become a haven for several species of endangered plants and animals.

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The selling point

DMZ Korean International Documentary Festival The official poster design for DMZ Docs 2011. The colorful style is meant to recall old propaganda fliers.
DMZ Docs is not just about reinventing the symbolism of the DMZ, but also about chipping away at the stigma that documentaries are being dry and boring.

“Abandon that thought -- that’s just a prejudice,” says Festival Director Seo Yong-woo.

DMZ Docs’ insurance against tedium?


Sub-genres of documentaries differ as much in nature as narrative films do from each other, and the program reflects this.

Director Gabriel Laurent, whose film “Sophie, Soojin, A Journey to Recognition,” about a Korean adoptee debuted last year at the festival, says of his experience that he “didn’t feel limited by the theme at all,” and that “I think the festival had a pretty large spectrum.”

As with last year, the films in the program range from the raw and political to the earthy, intimate, and personal.

DMZ Korean International Documentary Festival Yes, here’s a head. But he doesn’t seem to be in the mood to talk. (From "Armadillo")

The highly anticipated “Armadillo,” for example, from Danish director Janus Metz, is a film about Danish soldiers in the war in Afghanistan. Documentary, yes, but this one is not just talking heads.

“The setting is a war zone. It’s dynamic, fast-paced, thrilling. How can anyone call this boring?” asks Seo.

The opening film for this year is British director Antony Butts’ “After the Apocalypse,” a subtle, intelligent, and harrowing portrayal of life in a region in Kazakhstan generations after Soviet nuclear testing.

But “After the Apocalypse” also functions on an emotional, narrative level, with characters the audience learns to care for.

DMZ Korean International Documentary Festival From “After the Apocalypse.” Which, in some sense, is about a family.

Then there are also smaller independent works, such as domestic production “Two Doors,” from directors Kim Il-rhan and Hong Ji-you.

A rigorous investigation into the questionable deaths of six people -- five squatters and one policeman --in Yongsan, “Two Doors” is premiering at this year’s DMZ Docs.

“We really thought about the audience when putting together our program this year,” says Associate Programmer Park Sohyun.

“The program is divided into sections according to the target audience. For example, the ‘Family Zone’ section features documentaries that you can watch with your children.”

Unfortunately for those who believe that educational is equivalent to boring, some of these documentaries are also relentlessly informative.

“Many of the Korean documentaries deal with the immediate, relevant concerns of Korean society,” says Seo.

But at the end of the day they are films, not treatises or reports.

“Sure, documentaries require more patience,” says Director Seo. “But ultimately the payoff is worth it.

“Documentaries challenge the commonly accepted idea of ‘entertainment,’ but that doesn’t mean they can’t be entertaining.”

The art of the story

Documentaries are just stories, after all. True stories.

If DMZ Docs is not enough, it has also formed a partnership with neighboring festivals “Paju Booksori,” a festival about books and publishing, and the Heyri Pan Festival,” an art festival held at Heyri Art Village. Buy ticket package for all three festivals in Gyeonggi-do at a discounted price.

The majority of films will be shown with English subtitles.

The English program goes online at on September 19. Meanwhile, for more information, contact the DMZ Docs Offices in Paju Book City.

3/F, 499-1 Paju Book City, Munbal-ri, Gyoha-eup, Paju-si, Gyeonggi-do (경기도 파주시 교하읍문발리 499-1 3층); +82 31 955 6428

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Violet Kim is a freelance writer for CNN Travel.

Find her online @pomography.

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