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This film about North Korean defectors comes with a disclaimer: ‘No re-creations’

‘Beyond Utopia’ shows journeys rarely seen

“Beyond Utopia” tells the stories of several North Korean defectors, including the Roh family.
“Beyond Utopia” tells the stories of several North Korean defectors, including the Roh family. (Courtesy “Beyond Utopia”)

For the Roh family, the path out of North Korea lies through cold river water, thick underbrush and an underground network of supporters. Fleeing the country is just the first step, followed by a grueling trek into Thailand through China, Vietnam and Laos.

It may be shaky at times, but the footage in “Beyond Utopia” is real. “This film contains no re-creations,” the opening sequence says.

“I put that disclaimer at the top of the film because when I was first getting footage out of China of the Roh family, a friend of mine said to me, ‘Oh my God, those re-creations are incredible.’ And I realized that everyone’s going to assume,” says director Madeleine Gavin.

“It was so mind-blowing what we were getting,” she adds.

Making the documentary was risky in more ways than one, says producer Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst. The pair appeared on the latest episode of “Political Theater” to talk about the dangers for defectors and the people who help them, like Christian pastor and human rights activist Kim Seung-eun.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Q: This could not have been an easy film to make. How did it come about? 

MG: I was initially approached by our producers, and they had acquired the rights to Hyeonseo Lee’s memoir, “The Girl With Seven Names.” Hyeonseo is one of the most high-profile defectors out there, and she defected more than 20 years previous. I wasn’t interested in doing a biopic that would recreate something in the past, but I read the book, and it was haunting and stirring. 

I became obsessed with North Korea for many months. I dug into the internet very deeply, doing searches with VPNs, using every language I could think of. And I discovered this incredible hidden-camera footage that these very brave and determined North Koreans had been shooting out of the sleeves of their coats, risking their lives to shoot the reality of their country. 

At the same time, I learned even more starkly that we don’t get to hear from the people. In all my searching, the 26 million people were missing. It was everything the Kim Jong Un regime wants us to hear on our news — the parades, the missiles. 

The gulf between feeling the heartbeat of the people and seeing the absence of the people made me say, “I have to make this movie.” I started working and brainstorming with Hyeonseo, knowing I wanted something present tense. And on my second or third trip to Seoul, I read about Pastor Kim, and that just took the film to totally another place. 

Q: Pastor Kim helps people defect. He operates out of South Korea, one of the most technologically advanced societies we have. But how hard is it to contact people in the North?

ST: South Korea has the 10th largest economy in the world. North Korea is ranked 198th. South Korea has all its soft power, with “Parasite,” BTS, “Squid Game,” K-pop, and all of this. In North Korea, people don’t have access to the internet. I think it’s really hard for people to understand that. 

There are ways to reach North Koreans, but it’s very costly. The brokers have to get a phone in, and North Koreans have to go to the border areas and pick up the Chinese signal, and then they can have this very brief conversation. Because if it’s anything more than a brief conversation, they will get caught. 

It’s a black hole. It’s one of the most isolated societies in the world. 

Q: You focus on a family of five, including two children, who wade across the Yalu River into China. How did you get this footage?

MG: This goes back to Pastor Kim. He and I got to know each other, which took many months. He’s been approached by many filmmakers in the past and hasn’t had the greatest experience. So we had to gain each other’s trust. 

At a certain point, we realized that we were interested in making the same sort of film, which was, if we’re going to do this, let’s do it all the way, in a safe way that doesn’t put the family more at risk than they already were. 

I cannot give enough credit to Pastor Kim and his network. They keep cameras hidden along the more than 800-mile river border between North Korea and China, so they can get information of fellow North Koreans attempting to escape back into North Korea, to crack open the outside world. 

We took our cues from policy people, including Sue, to make sure that we were not drawing any extra attention to anything we were doing. We were allowed to be in Vietnam and Laos, and we were allowed to be on the border of Laos and Thailand. And of course, we were in South Korea, so it was a hodgepodge. Some of it, we were shooting. Some of it, farmers were shooting, brokers were shooting, family members were shooting. But without Pastor Kim, we couldn’t have done any of it.

Q: Pastor Kim is just this incredible figure. I can’t think of anybody who’s less like a debonair international man of mystery. He jokes about his potbelly and his clothes, but then he’s trekking into mountains and jungles to help this family get to safety. 

ST: Pastor Kim is literally risking his life. He’s gotten injured I don’t know how many times. And it’s not like he’s necessarily super healthy. He’s a middle-aged guy. It’s his moral compass. It’s his faith driving him to help in this way. He considers it his life’s mission. 

Q: The movie is almost like a thriller. You have jungle crossings, safe houses, betrayals by brokers and bribed police officers. But then you realize, “Wait, no. This is real.”

MG: I wanted people to really feel what it was like for these North Koreans, because we have ignored them for 70-plus years — so outrageous. Let’s put people in their shoes. 

And that meant, on the one hand, it’s vérité, it’s in the present. On the other hand, there were things I needed to establish about the history of North Korea, because this isn’t just an anonymous group of five attempting to escape from an anonymous country. This is a very specific country. 

And so as we follow the Roh family, we also learn about the reasons they had to do this. They even took cyanide pills with them in case they were caught. They knew that either they make it, or they’re dead — either by the North Korean regime or by killing themselves. 

I had the mandate that if the Roh family didn’t want any of this shown, we would never be able to show it. We cannot ask a family of five for proper consent, when they have fled North Korea across a river into the mountains of China. They don’t even have a concept of what a film is, and you’re gonna ask them for consent? Impossible. 

So one of my producers was like, “Wait, what? We’re gonna film this movie, and we may not get it?” And my point to her was, yes. The only way we have a chance of making this movie is to take the risk that we may not have a movie. People could be caught, and we could be caught as well. Or people could deny consent. But we have to go in accepting the risks.

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