‘Past Utopia’ tracks determined makes an attempt to flee North Korea


“Past Utopia,” an eye-opening thriller that captures a household’s determined and harmful escape from North Korea, is without doubt one of the yr’s most acclaimed documentaries, profitable an viewers prize after its January premiere on the Sundance Movie Pageant, and not too long ago incomes a spot among the many 15 shortlisted titles for consideration within the documentary function Oscar race. But, at the start, it was a tough promote to its director, Madeleine Gavin.

“My preliminary feeling was one in all nice hesitation,” the New York-based filmmaker mentioned. “I didn’t perceive why I’d be the best particular person to do that. I mentioned to them, ‘Wouldn’t you need to discuss to Korean administrators or anyone who has extra of a connection to the topic?’” However her producers — Rachel Cohen, Jana Edelbaum and Sue Mi Terry — with whom she had labored beforehand as an editor, persevered.

“They gave me an enormous quantity of latitude,” recalled Gavin, whose 2016 movie “Metropolis of Pleasure” targeted on a ladies’s refugee middle in japanese Democratic Republic of Congo. She took her time exploring the topic and supply supplies. These included the 2015 memoir “The Woman With Seven Names,” by Hyeonseo Lee, a North Korean defector and activist who seems within the movie, which supplied an early impetus for the manufacturing.

Digging deep into the web, “nearly into the darkish net,” Gavin found a secret world of hidden digital camera footage that made graphic the tough realities of life below the totalitarian regime of Kim Jong Un. “North Koreans themselves have been taking pictures [this] for the reason that ‘90s, with flip telephones,” she mentioned. “Actually risking their lives, risking their households’ lives to get the reality of their nation out. They’re taking pictures actually out of holes in paper luggage, out of their pockets and sleeves.” The filmmaker acknowledged an enormous disparity between what she noticed “and the absence of North Korean individuals in our media and in our world.”

That’s when she knew. “This movie needed to be made, and there was nobody making it,” she mentioned. “Past Utopia” leans into the ragged aesthetic of this guerrilla-style discovered footage, deftly reassembled by the filmmaker (who additionally acted as editor) to not solely present why North Korean defectors would danger dying to flee the nation but in addition how they handle their getaways: using an “underground railroad” of brokers and secure homes to navigate a grueling trek via China and a number of Southeast Asian nations to achieve South Korea. “I wished to do one thing that was as experiential as potential,” mentioned Gavin, who pointedly prevented one of the crucial frequent nonfiction workarounds, the re-creation.

A man sits at a computer surrounded by other equipment in "Beyond Utopia."

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

(Roadside Sights)

Her key was a South Korean pastor named Seungeun Kim, whose Caleb Mission has, since 2000, guided greater than 1,000 defectors out of North Korea. Pastor Kim’s mission acts as the center of the movie, and likewise its pivot, as Gavin tracks two completely different defection makes an attempt engineered via a multinational community. One is the five-member Roh household, whose quantity complicates the transit. The opposite is the teenage son of a profitable defector named Soyeon Lee, who longs to reunite along with her little one.

Each endeavors are tense and torturous, with dramatically reverse outcomes.

Even when somebody makes it throughout the Yalu River, which borders China throughout 800 miles and is overseen by ramped-up North Korean safety forces with “shoot to kill” orders, the dangers are intense and forbidding. If caught by Chinese language officers, a defector will likely be returned to North Korea and face torture and imprisonment, presumably dying. Brokers, paid to safeguard the defectors however sometimes with no greater motivation, may as a substitute consign them to the organ commerce or promote them to intercourse traffickers.

Remarkably, Kim himself meets the defectors en route, though he can now not enter China. “He was warned in 2009 that he could possibly be kidnapped into North Korea,” Gavin mentioned. Within the movie, Kim confides that though he appears effective on the skin, his physique is a wreck from all of the accidents he’s sustained. “He prepares himself for dying each time he does one in all these escapes,” Gavin mentioned. “He at all times tells himself, that is going to be the final one, after which he finds himself doing it once more. He’s in fixed ache … and he’s in a number of concern.” But there he’s with the Roh household, together with two kids, and their aged grandmother, making a rugged marathon trek via a jungle in Thailand.

“The journey via the jungle is so bodily and mentally troublesome that it’s exhausting to explain in phrases,” Kim mentioned, through e-mail, citing his religion in God to assist him overcome concern. “Whereas I’m within the jungle, I attempt to give attention to the liberty that North Korean defectors will discover on the finish of their journey. That’s how I get via the expertise.”


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