The world of documentaries is in for a treat. Director Giuseppe Rositano, and colleague Natasha Mistry, have combined in a new film entitled “At Search for Spirits on the Island of Rocks, Wind and Women.” The documentary sets out to capture local Jeju stories and traditions through the words of the rapidly declining population of locals who are part of Jeju’s indigenous shaman folk culture (musok). In production for more than a year-and-a-half, Rositano’s discovery documentary focuses on five Jeju shrines and the traditions of the Jeju musok. I had the opportunity to get a sneak peak of this incredible film, and it made me fall a little bit more in love with Jeju Island and the people that live here.
The film takes viewers on several little adventures, from witnessing the seemingly sole visitor to the shrine in Samyang, to stories about haunted mulberry trees. Rositano chose shrines from the villages of Samyang, Hwabuk, Pyoseon, Sanggwiri, Naedodong and Tosan. Each featured shrine has several gods, and each god serves a particular purpose. For example, locals take eggs to the Samsin Grandmother Shrine in Samyang to increase fertility. If a child is sick, people go there for help. There’s a grandmother and grandfather spirit at every shrine, and these spirits are responsible for caring for the town.
The most enchanting feature of this film is the attempt to unearth fresh information and capture Jeju stories from a more personal angle; through the views and words of locals who partake in musok traditions. Followers of the musok beliefs are typically age 60 and older making it increasingly difficult to hear first person stories.
“The point of this documentary,” said Rositano, “is this is the last time we will be able to hear these stories spoken in the voice of a person who believes in them…”
“We can hear them speak. We can hear the passion of their belief. We cannot get this from books. I am not preserving the stories because anthropologists have already done this. I am more preserving their actual expression of the beliefs,” he added.
Prior to this film, the only information about Jeju shamanism was written by scholars and came from an outsider’s perspective. Most of the musok followers interviewed in the film are elderly Korean women, some of which are haenyo, the iconic women divers of Jeju Island. Rositano handled most of the interviews in the film in Korean, and his direct questions usually elicited not only direct answers but beautiful stories about the island’s history. These are tales that are often brushed off as superstitions by Korean Christians.
“Jeju shamanism has been threatened several times,” said Rositano. “It has always been threatened really. There’s a famous event that happened in the 1850s called the 500 Shrines event. A priest from the mainland came… to Jeju and he destroyed 500 shrines. The Jeju people rebuilt them and those are the shrines we have today. Jeju people are really resilient. Buddhism, Christianity and those with no beliefs came to Jeju. Because of that and globalization, [the musok are] definitely disappearing…the next generation will not be able to tell these stories. It’s an oral tradition and so the point of this documentary is this is the last time we will be able to hear these stories spoken in the voice of a person who believes in them.”
Rositano anticipates completing the final cut of his film in the next couple of months and then will submit this to various film festivals. He anticipates a showing of his final film at some point in the coming months in Jeju City.