‘Beyond Utopia’ tracks desperate attempts to flee North Korea


“Beyond Utopia,” a revealing thriller that captures the desperate and dangerous escape of a family from North Korea, is one of the most acclaimed documentaries of the year, winning an audience award after its premiere in January at the Film Festival Sundance and recently won a spot. among the 15 titles shortlisted for consideration in the race for the Documentary Feature Oscar. However, it was difficult at first to convince its director, Madeleine Gavin.

“My initial feeling was one of great hesitation,” said the New York-based filmmaker. “I didn’t understand why I would be the right person to do this. I said, ‘Wouldn’t you like to talk to Korean directors or someone who has more connection to the subject?’” But his producers, Rachel Cohen, Jana Edelbaum and Sue Mi Terry, with whom he had previously worked as an editor, persisted.

“They gave me a lot of freedom,” recalled Gavin, whose 2016 film “City of Joy” focused on a women’s refugee center in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. She took her time exploring the subject matter and source materials. These include the 2015 memoir “The Girl with Seven Names,” by Hyeonseo Lee, a North Korean defector and activist who appears in the film, which provided an early impetus for the production.

Delving deep into the Internet, “almost into the dark web,” Gavin discovered a secret world of hidden camera footage that made graphic the harsh realities of life under Kim Jong Un’s totalitarian regime. “The North Koreans themselves have been shooting [this] since the 90s, with folding phones,” he said. “They really risk their lives, they risk the lives of their families to bring the truth of their country to light. “They are literally shooting from the holes in the paper bags, from their pockets and sleeves.” The filmmaker acknowledged a great disparity between what she saw “and the absence of the North Korean people in our media and in our world.”

That’s when she knew. “This movie had to be made and there was no one to make it,” she said. “Beyond Utopia” relies on the jagged aesthetic of this guerrilla-style found footage, deftly reassembled by the filmmaker (who also acted as editor) to show not only why North Korean defectors would risk death to escape the country, but also How they manage their escapades: Using an “underground railroad” of brokers and safe houses to make a grueling journey through China and several Southeast Asian countries until they reach South Korea. “I wanted to do something that was as experiential as possible,” said Gavin, who deliberately avoided one of the most common nonfiction workarounds: reenactment.

South Korean pastor Seungeun Kim and his Caleb Mission have guided more than 1,000 defectors out of North Korea since 2000.

(Roadside Attractions)

Their key was a South Korean pastor named Seungeun Kim, whose Caleb Mission has guided more than 1,000 defectors out of North Korea since 2000. Pastor Kim’s mission acts as the heart of the film, as well as its lynchpin, as Gavin tracks two different defection attempts engineered through a multinational network. One is the Roh family of five, whose number complicates traffic. The other is the teenage son of a successful dropout named Soyeon Lee, who longs to reunite with his daughter.

Both efforts are tense and tortuous, with dramatically opposite results.

Even if someone manages to cross the Yalu River, which borders China for 800 miles and is monitored by North Korean security forces reinforced with “shoot to kill” orders, the risks are intense and prohibitive. If caught by Chinese officials, a defector will be returned to North Korea and face torture and imprisonment, possibly death. Middlemen, who are paid to safeguard defectors, but usually without further motivation, might instead send them into the organ trade or sell them to sex traffickers.

Surprisingly, Kim himself meets the defectors along the way, although he can no longer enter China. “In 2009 he was warned that he could be kidnapped and taken to North Korea,” Gavin said. In the film, Kim confesses that, although he looks good on the outside, his body is destroyed from all the injuries he has suffered. “He prepares for death every time he pulls off one of these escapes,” Gavin said. “He always tells himself that this will be the last, and then he finds himself doing it again. He is in constant pain…and he is very afraid.” Yet there he is with the Roh family, including two children, and his elderly grandmother, doing a tough marathon hike through the Thai jungle.

“The journey through the jungle is so physically and mentally difficult that it is difficult to describe it in words,” Kim said via email, citing his faith in God to help him overcome fear. “While in the jungle, I try to focus on the freedom that North Korean defectors will find at the end of their journey. “That’s how I get through the experience.”

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