Over the last 12 months, more and more people have become aware of the situation in North Korea, politically at least. On a more personal level, it is close to impossible for an American or European, living the relatively comfortable lives that we do, to fathom what everyday life is like in this autocratic nation. Camp 14: Total Control Zone – available now on DVD – tells the horrific tale of Shin Dong-Hyuk, born in one of the country’s death camps in 1983 and thought to be the only person to have escaped not only the camp but the country itself. Living with no knowledge of the outside world, Shin’s existence was unimaginable. “Our sole purpose was to follow the rules of the work camp, and then die.”
In Camp 14, director Marc Weise introduces us to Shin’s story through a series of candid interviews, not only with Shin himself, but also with a pair of former high-ranking officers, since defected. Commander Hyuk Kwon and Officer Oh Yangnam talk very explicitly about the goings on in these camps that is tragic and often very difficult to watch. We spoke to Weise to try and get further insight into this unbelievable situation.
Camp 14 tells a truly incredible story. As a filmmaker what was it that attracted you to the project?
Mainly for me it’s a story about the question of how the system is able to format people. If I only made the film with Shin it would be a typical victim and camp story but the two perpetrators take the film to another level because you can see how the system is formatting the victim and how the system was able to format the guards to act like they did.
What do the events of Camp 14 say about the world at large and about how people can be conditioned by a system?
It’s telling you that the system is able to change human beings into machines. On the side of the guards definitely. Commander Kwon has given me interviews where half of the material wasn’t useable because it was too tough, it would’ve changed the whole film into a freak show. On the level of the victims the system is dealing with people whose experience of human values is singular. They only have one idea and the whole day, the whole week, the whole month it’s to survive. Shin told me this story from when he was four, my question was, “give me an idea of what you would have done as a kid,” and I hoped to get a nice story. I was aware that there were no toys in the camp but, come on, it was possible that he would’ve played with a football or stones or stuff like that and suddenly he told me, “well I was four and I was witnessing this public execution,” and off camera I asked him, “did your mother try to help you to manage this situation?” He looked at me and said, “Why? It was happening every week.” That’s the reality. I asked him, “What did your mother teach you?” and he said, “Only one thing, to survive.”
The extent of Shin’s conditioning is shocking. What were your reactions to his story?
I was honestly really shocked, extremely interested because it was brand new for me but obviously totally shocked. If you realise, there are 200,000 people in these camps and we just accept it. And you can now watch the camps on Google Earth, it’s not totally live but still you can watch them, and people are dying there.
Having had such an unimaginable history Shin was obviously a very difficult subject. What precautions did you have to take when interviewing him with regards to how you approached him?
I had to build the conditions which enabled him to talk about it. In the beginning during research I wanted to talk about it and he totally refused. He said, “It’s so exhausting for me, I’ll do it one time, in front of the camera.” So we could only film something like two hours a day because after he was so exhausted. There were situations like after he told me the stories of the torture in the camp’s prison that he disappeared for three or four days. He was just gone, I had no idea where he was. So in the beginning there were ideas to bring him into other settings but I realised very quickly that it wasn’t possible. I had to bring him to a setting where he’s able to talk about it, which was his apartment.
How easy were the guards to interview? Did it take a lot of pressure to get them to open up?
Commander Kwon isn’t regretful, in a way he doesn’t see what he has done as problematic, so he was rather open and, once we had him, it was rather easy to interview him. With Yangnam it was totally different, he was very restrictive, he refused to meet me at home, he refused to meet me beforehand, he said “I’ll only come once”. He was expecting an interview about Shin and suddenly I began asking stuff like, “Where was your primary school? How was your childhood?” I started a five hour interview about his whole life so he realised something totally different was happening. He had two chances, to stay or to leave and I was lucky that he stayed. That explains why he made a development, he was talking for five hours about his life and suddenly he was sitting there and said, “What have I done?” They were human beings too. Yangnam told me off camera, “I’ve now done this one time and I’ll never give an interview like this again…There will be pressure on my family because some of them are still in North Korea”
Towards the end of the film Shin admits that he dreams of one day returning to North Korea and his ‘home’ in the camp. What is your interpretation of that?
My interpretation is that he’s not able firstly, to manage a life in Seoul. Seoul is a highly competitive town, you have an unbelievable suicide rate there. It’s very focussed on business and money and he’s not able to manage that. Secondly, he’s divided on obvious levels and deeper levels. On obvious levels Shin is functioning very well, just a few weeks ago he gave a testimony in front of the UN. On deeper levels he’s still totally traumatised. In a way, it’s a wish to go back into the circumstances which are familiar for him. It was totally surprising for me, as he said it I checked four or five times because after two weeks of interviewing him and hearing this horror it was unbelievable. But then I realised and I learned about it.
How has the film’s reception differed around the world? Have you seen a difference between America, Europe and Korea, for example?
There’s a difference. In Germany it’s like, “Well it’s a good film but that’s it,” in a way, they’re not so close to the topic. In The US and Canada the reactions were very, very good. Worldwide there are lots of film festivals and lots of stations like Netflix and HBO who bought the film. But you can see differences, yes. I was in Warsaw, Poland, at a big festival and the people were reacting totally different, they really had problems with Shin which was new for me. It was the first time that I was at a Q&A after the film and they really had problems with him. Of course I would be interested to see the reactions in North Korea, too. There was in invitation to the Beijing International Film Festival in China but they cancelled it. They invited me first but then more people realised the topic of the film and then they cancelled it. I’d really love to go there and show the film.
Camp 14: Total Control Zone is out now and available to buy on DVD.