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Filming forgiveness: Hager City filmmaker to show doc at film fest

Documentary filmmaker Dawn Mikkelson, a resident of Hager City, Wis., will be showing her new film, "Risking Light," at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival on April 17 and 22. Submitted photo1 / 2
Documentary filmmaker Dawn Mikkelson, a resident of Hager City, Wis., will be showing her new film, "Risking Light" at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival on April 17 and 22. Submitted photo2 / 2

HAGER CITY — Can you forgive the unforgivable? That is the question documentary filmmaker Dawn Mikkelson poses in her new film, "Risking Light."

The film covers three uniquely similar thematic stories that take place all around the world. One story shows the grief of Mary Johnson, a Minneapolis mother whose son was murdered, trying to find a way to forgive the man who killed her son.

The second story follows Kilong Ung, a Cambodian man who grew up during the Khmer Rouge, an event that carried out a Cambodian massacre. Ung was a slave laborer during this time, with the film following his processes of anger and hopes for vengeance towards a particular person.

The final story shows Debra Hocking, a member of the "Stolen Generation" in Australia, that took children who were considered "aboriginal" from their parents and put in foster care. The efforts by the Australian government at this time was to breed out aboriginality in the nation's citizens. The film shows Hocking trying to deal with the abuse suffered from her foster family, the prejudice by her government, and the nation's eventual apology to those people affected.

Mikkelson said that Johnson's story was the first she came across. Deeply moved, she begin wondering how forgiveness manifests itself.

Originally a television news reporter in Duluth, Minn., Mikkelson began making documentary films on the side, focusing on stories she couldn't continue to follow during her time as a reporter. After a couple of years, Mikkelson was able to leave her job and focus on filmmaking full-time.

"Risking Light" was a seven-year process, the longest time she's spent on a film. Finding the stories proved to be difficult, with Mikkelson finding Johnson's story from friends, sending a social media post to find Ung, and visiting Australia with her husband, Jim, and coming across Hocking's story through research about the "Stolen Generation."

In their own right, Mikkelson said each story could be a film by itself, but after some editing by herself and her crew, they found the stories to live together in harmony.

"This film has definitely been a way of learning how important it is to have that feedback, have other eyes on something, have a community look at it and say what works and what doesn't work," Mikkelson said.

Aside from her film crew, Mikkelson showed an early screening of the film to her book club in Hager City, taking various notes from that experience as well.

Across all of her films, including "Risking Light," Mikkelson seems to be searching for people who faced adversity and subsequently stood up for themselves.

Mikkelson said that she hopes viewers will notice two things. One, what forgiveness means in terms of healing. Two, that people can see themselves in this film and evaluate their own lives.

The experience has been therapeutic in a way, Mikkelson says. Giving her an opportunity to evaluate her own life, thinking about the people she has or has not forgiven.

"Honestly, I've done a lot of work on my own while making this film," Mikkelson said. "Dealing with, what have I not forgiven? And there's a lot."

Aside from her films, Mikkelson produces programs as an independent contractor for Twin Cities PBS. Her latest work on TPT will be "Nature: Walking with Emerson and Thoreau," a story about the complex friendship between writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in an outdoor play. That program will air on Earth Day, April 22.

"Risking Light" will be shown at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival on April 17 and 22. To purchase tickets for the festival, visit

When asked what advice Mikkelson has for aspiring filmmakers: just do the work.

"You have to make a fair amount of work to get good at it," Mikkelson said. "Waiting for someone to hire you, waiting for something to happen, waiting for permission to make the work is wasting time. Just make the work, even if you don't have the perfect setup you want."

Two of Mikkelson's films, "The Red Tail" and "Green Green Water," are readily available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

Matthew Lambert

Matthew Lambert joined the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2018 covering school board, public safety, and writing features. Lambert previously wrote for the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal. He is a graduate of Winona State University with a Bachelor's degree in Mass Communication: Journalism. 

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