Interview: Giuseppe Rositano & His Documentary On Jeju Shamanism
Joey (Giuseppe) Rositano is an American who has been living in Jeju, South Korea for almost a decade. It certainly wasn’t his plan to stay so long, but he got interested in Jeju Shamanism, definitely unique and unlike other shamanistic practices. We spent some time talking about his creative work, and this is the resulting interview.
(All images Copyright Joey Rositano.)
How did you become interested in your creative practice?
I’ve been creating all my life. I started out by writing stories, then wrote songs–hundreds of songs in fact–maybe a thousand. I still write stories and now I’m working on a film and created a companion photo book. My goal is to write a non-fiction book about Eurasian shamanism, including Jeju Shamanism, a topic I’ve been delving into for eight years.
Tell me more about your Jeju Shamanism project. What made it possible for you to pursue it? How long have you been working on it?
I am directing a documentary film called Spirits, The Story of Jeju Island’s Shamanic Shrines which is about shrine worship on the island of Jeju, South Korea. The elderly of Jeju practice a polytheist religion which is one of the most vibrant examples of Eurasian shamanism. I have spent eight years documenting the lifestyles of the practitioners of the religion, as well as collecting the myths associated with the practice.
Presently I’m working on a re-edit of the film which will include as subject matter the recent activism I’ve been involved with to rebuild a deliberately desecrated shrine.
Why did you decide to focus on this issue?
There are two cultures living on Jeju Island, the elderly generation, and the young generation. The two generations speak different languages and practice different religions.
Forces such as globalization, war, and political repression can change the identity of people and split generations, the younger generation being assimilated into the dominating culture. In the case of Jeju, the young people have essentially adopted the Korean mainland culture.
I think the younger generations of people in Jeju Island and in mainland South Korea, have been largely influenced by the political movements of the 1980s. The New Village Movement of the 1980’s proclaimed that Koreans adopt a modern lifestyle. While the country became more prosperous, many regions were forced to give up their traditions and their own unique identity. Younger people in Jeju have almost lost their culture, though the elderly still practice their native religion living beside the young. There is now some movement to restore interest in local culture though, and it seems to be growing.
Contemporary shrine desecration
The Senjari Rangers, an activist group, and I rebuilt a traditional shamanistic shrine which was desecrated. I broke this story on my blog. It was translated to Korean and featured in several local newspapers. You can follow the story through my posts.
The most recent news is that the landowner will rebuild and maintain the site as it was, but this is not confirmed as of now. The effort we made at Sulsaemit did have resonance. I was able to speak with the governor of Jeju Island about it at a special exhibition I held at the Provincial Capital building in 2016. Also, the destruction of shrines was regularly brought up during commentary on the effects of overdevelopment for some time after and still is now.
My TEDx talk in 2017 at Jeju Korean International School focused on this shrine. I also talked about the Senjari Rangers’ and my efforts to rebuild another destroyed shrine at the 2017 Jeju Forum on the special UNESCO panel for women diver’s heritage.
(Yes, I re-recorded my own TEDx Talk, not sure if I’m the first person to ever do this, but the recording made of it wasn’t very good. The microphone cut out halfway through my presentation and there were other issues. I certainly appreciate being invited and the hard work the hosts put into it, though.)
Did the violent incident referred to as Jeju 4.3 come up when talking with older generations on Jeju? If so, what have you learned? Did the violence have a direct impact on people’s spiritual practices?
The April 3rd Uprising and the massacres that happened during those years–with 30,000 victims–constantly came up and still do come up when I visit the elderly on Jeju Island. I thought before starting the project that I would avoid broaching the subject. And I thought that people wouldn’t willingly talk about it anyway. I was so wrong.
Many people I met shared their traumatic stories with me and many cried in my presence. I really had to learn how to hold back my own tears; which, for some reason, I felt was the right thing to do. I found myself biting the inside of my lip on several occasions to conceal my feelings.
I’ve learned about how strong people can be, surviving such trauma.
I’ve also learned that war should always be avoided whenever possible and other solutions sought.
People, especially the youth, should be wary of strong dogma that leads to conflict. Evil acts will come out of it that will scar a society for generations.
I’ve also reflected a lot on U.S. failures during the conflict on Jeju Island and shudder to think about how much turmoil U.S. foreign policy has caused in the world, largely with its citizens being unaware of it.
Shamanism on Jeju Island is tailored to directly address survivor’s concerns while they work through their trauma. And, we know what kind of role shamanic practice can play in dealing with war trauma from studies done on indigenous American veterans of the Vietnam War. It’s similar on Jeju Island. Conferences have even been held locally to inform local doctors on how shamanic practices can help patients to recover. Shamanic rituals are also very prominent ways in which the community-at-large experiences healing from trauma. Typically, public rituals centering on the victims of 4.3 and their families are held several times a year.
Gifts from last survivors
A few years ago I started collecting and photographing some of the gifts I received from survivors of the era. These are people who were able to escape to safety themselves. In many cases, if not most, members of their families were killed. They had often witnessed the deaths of their loved ones.
People are so kind letting me into their homes and telling me everything about shamanism that I needed to know. I’ve also continued to visit many of the same people just for the joy of dropping in. There are always cups of coffee and food offered and sometimes little items that they want me to take with me. Each item, for me, carries the stories they told me.
I believe that their stories are valuable and I want to pass them on. Photographing their gifts is a way I found to do that, and it focuses more on the survivors themselves, not their relationship to shamanism. Of course, the magic that we assign to items or they to us is very shamanic in nature and has its roots there.
How have you made it financially possible to focus on your documentary?
I did a Kickstarter campaign that was successful quickly. Yet, I didn’t have the experience to understand how far I could’ve taken it. I managed to secure almost $6,000 from just the local Jeju community. I could have targeted a larger audience in Korea and abroad.
The money I raised wasn’t nearly enough to focus on my project full time. So I’ve struggled, I had no hot water for around 5 months maybe. Sometimes I don’t have enough income to eat well, either. I keep a part-time job and, luckily, for the first time in 3 years, have a solid income. I found a school to teach at that pays well for short hours and I do other work as well. So I just resolved, if I’m going to do this, it’s going to be 12 hour days and it is every day. I work on my art, including the documentary, then I go to my job. Rinse and repeat. But working on my projects is what I love and what intend to do.
Do you think artists should starve?
I don’t think artists should starve. If some people are ambitious enough they might find themselves in a situation where they stretch their resources thin. I think artists should aggressively seek funding.
What challenges have you faced in making your documentary?
My main challenge has been time. Sometimes I had to go to a job that started at 2 p.m. so I had from waking up until then to work. Many days when I went to my job my heart really hurt. I knew I was supposed to be doing something else, something more significant, something I was born to do and that was to be creative. It still hurts but now I go in to my day job at 5 and finish at 9.
Another challenge has been having Korean people of the younger generation understand that what I’m doing is a full-access project. They tend to think my understanding of the topic would somehow be minimal when the fact is they have very little understanding of their grandparents’ culture. When they see my film they start to feel ashamed for not knowing. Everyone says, hey look, this foreigner knows about this and we didn’t even try to make this film.
I notice that you use the word foreigner. Could you talk about the concept of being ‘foreign’ or ‘local’ in Jeju?
I think in the Jeju dialect, a foreigner is someone who comes from another place other than Jeju. The old people actually use several terms for this and they are talking about people from the mainland as ‘foreigners’ equally as they are for people from other countries. Of course, this has changed with the younger generations and I think the term is just applied to foreign people though it is tailored. They call English speakers ‘native speakers’ a lot of the time, whereas newcomer foreigners such as the newly arrived Yemeni refugees are called just that, refugees.
Have you been able to gain ‘full access’ because of your language skills or some other quality?
Language skills certainly help. I don’t speak Korean perfectly but I do understand the Jeju language pretty well from studying my own interviews and chatting with people in the villages. There is another quality that helps. I think that is genuine interest and treating the people you meet as equals. Often Koreans who speak standard Korean treat elderly Jeju islanders as if they were something quaint out of the past. However, I don’t have that attitude. I feel there is so much I can learn from people, and I think they sense this.
Yes, genuine interest will get you far. I think of that as being vulnerable with your subjects. How else did you gain trust with your interviewees?
The elderly people in my film aren’t in the least wary of a foreign person’s presence. Hundreds of people I have spoken to have opened up to me with little effort really. This is also something that young Koreans have a hard time believing. I find that people from the older generation are very eager to help out when they realize you have an interest in their culture.
Have you run up against any obstacles being an outsider in Korea researching and interviewing Korean cultural practices and beliefs for your project? Have misunderstandings ever arisen?
I think in the beginning the experts on shamanism– the locals–were against me, by and large. First of all, I am an outsider and second I take a very different approach than they do. Whereas they tend to focus on authority, the island’s most prominent shamans or the work of other experts, I went straight into the field and met the people who believe in the religion themselves.
I think their attitude has changed and I have even been asked to join a group of younger researchers to work on a webpage about Jeju shamanism together. Although I’m making a documentary, in a few instances, I have contributed to the anthropology of the shrines as well, providing new information.
Have you ever reached an impasse where you thought the project had become impossible? What changed your mind?
Yes. Editing. You shouldn’t edit your own film, but due to lack of resources, I haven’t been able to work with a pro editor (though I am considering it now). I have so much to say in the film and am working to re-edit it at the moment. Because of the time constraints, my teaching job imposes, sometimes it is pretty hard. Several times I have stated that it’s impossible, that I should quit but, you know, sometimes it feels good to say that. I dust myself off and I keep going.
How can people view your documentary?
Also, the photo book is available now! It includes photographs of about 25 Jeju shrines I couldn’t include in the film.
You’ve got a lot on your plate. But what’s next?
Well, the documentary, and a few other small projects. My end goal is to find a publisher for a book about Euroasian shamanism. I should mention a bit of a silly project I’ve just about completed as well. It’s a mash-up novel of The Picture of Dorian Gray and a Korean drama, called The Picture of Hye Mi Bae. Instead of Dorian Gray, the protagonist is a young Korean college student who becomes sinister. It’s got elements of a story like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies but it’s different.
Tell us something we don’t know about you yet:
I think math is amazing but I don’t know much about it. I would love to take time off to study the theoretical minimum course that offers the least amount of math that allows you to understand particle physics.
Joey (Giuseppe) Rositano is a documentary filmmaker and writer from Nashville, Tennessee. After extensive adventures in Europe, he settled on Jeju Island, South Korea. During those initial years, Joey became interested in shamanism on the island, which struck him as mysterious and different from the way it manifested in other cultures. He decided to explore the practice for himself.
Joey realized it was urgent to record the important aspects of Jeju’s history, language, and identity he had learned about through speaking with community members. Joey has set out to record the voices and stories of the island in his documentary Spirits and the associated photo book. He continues to document his observations and insight at his blog, Pagans We Are.
Follow Spirits developments on Facebook.
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