Manchester University / Alumni / Filmmaker Etsler follows passion

Filmmaker Estler Follows Passion

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The irony is never lost on him: To find his true north, Forest Etsler ‘05 had to lose the person who, in some sense, handed him his compass.

His father was a baseball player and a craftsman, a woodworker who did historical restoration of the Indiana State Capitol. And when he died in 2010, his son – who came to Manchester as a baseball player, too – discovered his own craft.

“I was 28, had been in Korea for five years, and was experiencing an ennui of sorts,” says Etsler, a Muncie native who at the time was teaching English at a public school in Seoul, South Korea, where he had come on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Grant. “So I took stock of my life, asking questions like ‘Who am I? To what do I devote myself? What life shall I lead? What is my craft?’

“I was in the midst of a mini-existential crisis, and so I thought it best to follow my passions.”

Etsler’s passion was film. And he’d known it for some time.

An English major at Manchester, his interest in the medium was sparked by Associate Professor Jonathan Watson, who, as part of his Introductory to Literary Studies course, screened the Mike Nichols classic The Graduate. Other films in other courses followed – Harold and Maude, Citizen Kane, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility – as well as Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Fellini’s 8 ½.

All of that proved a fertile seedbed for what would blossom later. But others would blossom first.

First would come Etsler’s love for other cultures, an interest nourished by the Manchester emphasis on diversity, and exploring and serving the wider world. For that, Etsler also credits Watson for encouraging him to “expand my horizons” first by visiting literary sites in England on an Imagination Grant funded by Eli Lilly.

After that, it was on to Barcelona, Spain, where Etsler spent a semester during his junior year. Then came the Fulbright grant that, with Watson’s encouragement, ultimately landed him in Seoul.

“Honestly, I couldn’t even find South Korea on a map,” Etsler says. “But I was open to the idea of going to Korea, and … I wanted to get a Fulbright Grant. So I kind of came to Korea rather blindly, with no preconceptions.”

The move proved serendipitous. South Korea was at the tag end of a Korean New Wave Cinema boom that established South Korea as the epicenter of East Asian filmmaking. It was the perfect landing spot for a young man whose passion for film and the performance arts had never really dimmed.

“I spend most of my time hanging out with musicians, talking music and watching films,” Etsler says. “It was time to make a movie, and so I pushed myself into film.”

With the help of a Korean government receptive to paying foreigners to get into film, Etsler bought a digital camera and headed off to film school. Along the way, he met Sebastien Simon, a native of Alsace in eastern France. It was a collaboration that has led to a short film called Urban Suite, a silent film called Seoul Times, and a film called One-Minded that won the New Talent Award (FIPA Mitrani, 2016) and the Gold Plaque Award (Chicago International Film Festival, 2016) and was featured at the Slamdance film festival in Park City, Utah, in 2017.

Next on the horizon is a feature project for the Cannes Film Festival’s Cine Foundation Residency Program, about Indiana gold miners in 1930s Korea.

None of this, Etsler makes clear, would have happened without the guiding principles of inclusion, learning and improving oneself that shaped his formative years at Manchester.

“The time I spent at Manchester had such a profound influence on the formation of my identity and values that I find it very hard to separate the current me from the pre-Manchester me,” says Etsler, who, along with so much else, played baseball for Manchester as a first-year and cites baseball coach Rick Espeset and all of his English instructors among his most crucial influences.

“In most classes at Manchester, we were pushed to question things and increase our horizons,” he goes on. “The education I received at Manchester was a liberal arts education at its finest … I was given the tools, taught the techniques and instilled with the values of education as a lifelong pursuit. I’m still enjoying the drip-drop benefits of such an education.”

-- Benjamin Smith