MEMBER MONDAY | Matthew Koshmrl
MEMBER MONDAYS is a weekly interview series highlighting current members & alumni of the Austin School of Film + Austin Cinemaker Space community! Each week, we’ll be featuring one of our incredibly eclectic community members, and doing a deep dive into their work. Insight into what makes them, them.
Matthew Koshmrl is an independent documentary filmmaker and the instructor the Documentary Filmmaking course at Austin School of Film. His passion for non-fiction storytelling has taken him on adventures all over the world, from Austin to South Korea and everywhere in-between. Blog Contributor Stephanie Franks, a friend and student of Matt's, got a chance to chat with him about those adventures and other aspects of his filmmaking life.
You’re from Minnesota, went to Emerson College in Boston for B.A. in film, and then moved to South Korea. Tell us the story behind that, please!
Matthew Koshmrl: The great thing about working in the independent documentary film world is that there is no need to move to Los Angeles or New York City. I have a great love for both of those cities, but I also have no desire to work directly in these big markets. I moved to South Korea because I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone and immerse myself in a new culture.
While living abroad, you were a cinematographer on short films and participated in the Daegu Independent Short Film Festival. How did you get those opportunities?
MK: When I lived in South Korea I started working as a director of media for the Daegu Compass, an arts and culture magazine that was aimed at the expat community. I made connections with both Korean and expat filmmakers while working for the publication, which eventually lead to several collaborations.
Why did you choose to pursue an MFA at the University of Texas?
MK: I’ve always loved studying film and filmmaking, dating back to high school. Coming out of Emerson I wanted to open new doors, and so sought an MFA in film production to hone my skills and further my growth and knowledge as a filmmaker. Attending the University of Texas surrounded me with like-minded folks who also loved filmmaking in an environment that constantly challenged my own ideas about film.
What was your thesis film about?
MK: My thesis film is about a small island called Dokdo that’s in the sea between South Korea and Japan. Both South Korea and Japan claim it as their own soil and the island has been the source of a fervent territorial and political dispute for the better part of a century — since Japan’s occupation of South Korea ended along with World War II in 1945. The Japanese occupation meant forced labor, sexual slavery, and the systematic destruction of Korean culture, and Dokdo has remained as a symbol of the time.
Two of your films, The Poachers and Pig Tale, incorporate the meat industry. What was your inspiration for producing these films? Do you feel as if they affected you in a strong, personal way? Because you are a vegetarian now, right?
MK: Honestly, I don't think that either of those films have much to do with me being a vegetarian. I grew up hunting and fishing and learned how to clean game at a young age. I’ve always appreciated that my father raised me in the outdoors. Hunting is an intimate experience, and helped me feel closer to nature and develop an appreciation for healthy food and life. In Pig Tale, I wanted to teach my audience and myself about the human food web by understanding how pigs are raised, slaughtered and taken to market. The goal was to share the hard work that goes on at the farm and slaughterhouse, without sensationalizing it. Death happens to be a part of that process and I think it is healthy that we don’t gloss over it. The Poachers is a film that documents an evolution of hunting traditions. There’s a scene with a veteran hunter demonstrating how to properly butcher a deer that’s a personal favorite because it highlights a dying skill, as we become evermore removed from the food we eat as a society.
The first time I met you, you told me about a filming expedition for the Antarctic Peninsula Paleontology Project, and I about lost my mind with jealousy! But filming in the Antarctic surely has its complications—how did you prepare for this adventure and what challenges did you face as a cinematographer?
MK: This job came up impromptu about a month before the expedition team left for Chile. I had little time to finish the required medical examinations for the trip and even less time to think about the challenges of filming in the Antarctic conditions. Luckily, I had spent a good amount of time filming in Northern Minnesota during the winter months, so I had experience working in cold climates with production gear. The biggest challenge was having only one filmmaker — myself — on the trip. I missed the camaraderie between the crew that normally occurs on longer documentary shoots. With that said, the paleontological team that I was documenting were an incredible group people to spend a month with. And as you guessed, it was mighty cold.
I was lucky enough to be in Florence, Italy, at the same time you were filming a project and got to see you in action on a rooftop! Your films and projects take you all over the world. What is one of your most memorable experiences?
MK: One moment that made me deeply appreciate the kindness of strangers was on a shoot in South Korea for my film Dokdo. My crew and I had travelled to a rural boarding school to film a subject for several days. When we arrived we found out that our accommodations had fallen through due to overbooking. At the end of the day we were approached by one of the cafeteria cooks. She offered to let us stay with her for the remainder of the shoot. That evening, after an amazing home cooked meal, her husband pulled out his computer and asked if we would sing a medley of American ‘70s classic rock. We were all objectively terrible singers, but the soju (a Korean liquor) was flowing and it was a night to remember.
You focus on documentary films “that explore the evolution of tradition, individual and national identity, and unseen processes.” Are there certain subjects you specifically seek or do they happen organically?
MK: I think my innate curiosity of the world inspires most of the films I’ve made. It is not always intuitive where our traditions came from, or why they evolved. Documentary filmmaking is a practice that helps me better understand the world, and sharing my discoveries with a larger audience.
INTERVIEW BY: Stephanie Franks