Thursday November 22, 2012
This blog post was written by Ann Shin, director of "The Defector: Escape from North Korea"
When I first heard about North Koreans fleeing their country I was immediately drawn to their stories. Their radical flight to freedom mirrored for me in some way, my own parents' departure from South Korea in the 1960s. During the Korean War (1950-53) my aunts and uncles in South Korea who had socialist ideals suffered greatly for being North Korean sympathizers. Property was confiscated, some were tortured, one uncle was killed.
But the story of North Korean defectors today is one with much higher stakes, the highest really. They are risking their lives to find freedom. They are endangering the lives of their own families to seek freedom. I felt compelled to share their stories in some way.
As a Korean-Canadian, I was in a unique position to get intimate access into North Korean stories and to tell it to a Western audience. I started meeting with North Korean defectors in Toronto, and learned about a vast global network of people who were helping them. I met with church groups and humanitarian aid organizations. I began to envision a film about North Korean defectors and the global network of people who were putting themselves at risk to help them.
As you know, filming a documentary is a leap of faith. That faith is buit on the trust that’s established between the filmmaker and their subjects. I started filming with defectors, a church group and an aid organization in Canada and the United States. The real hurdle was to film their work in China, for North Korean defectors have no legal status in China.
Partway through the filming, several participants decided it was too unsafe to film with them in China. So I found myself with a filmmaker’s nightmare: several unfinished stories with no way to film an ending - augh! However, one of my subjects, Tae-Sup Heo, a North Korean defector in Toronto, put me in touch with several defectors in South Korea and China – people who helped other defectors escape. One of those people invited me to come along on an escape journey. I decided, sight unseen, to join him and film the journey.
The fellow who invited me ended up being the main character of our film: Dragon. He is a broker, basically someone who guides (or smuggles) North Koreans out of North Korea through China, for a fee. It’s nerve-wracking to trust a guy whose line of work is illegal. He had served time in a Chinese prison already and South Korean security kept tabs on him - everything he did was illegal, and I was hitching my wagon to his. My leap of faith quickly turned into a leap into fear.
My crew and I discussed how to approach filming while preserving the safety of the defectors and ourselves. We chose gear and grip, deciding on DSLR cameras. We had to think creatively about sound. We had to make sure no footage that would put our subjects at risk could be confiscated.
We travelled with the group of defectors in cars, on buses and vans, from the border of China and North Korea, all across China to the Laotian border. We changed our filming plans several times as we encountered risk we hadn’t anticipated.
When your life is on the line, trust happens instantaneously. We got to know Dragon and the defectors on this harrowing trip, and I was very moved and inspired by their courage. A particularly moving moment was during a night-time climb through the Laotian jungle. One of the defectors realized her mom would never be able to physically manage this hike. It was her plan to get enough funds to hire the guides to have her mom come over as well, but she realized now she would never see her again. She wept bitterly.
Filming this story has made me much more appreciative of the life I have here, and of the value of acting on your convictions and to commit yourself fully despite your fears. Of course, our defector friends we were following were not defecting because they are 'risk-taker' types. Their aspiration was simply to be able to live a 'normal life.' They are all able to pursue that now, to differing degrees. But that is another story, or film.