Madeleine Gavin On Piecing Together a Full Picture of North Korea in “Beyond Utopia”

It was a challenge that only a veteran editor could love as Madeleine Gavin was recruited to make a documentary about North Korea with the knowledge that she’d never be allowed to set foot in the country herself. Still, the producers behind what became “Beyond Utopia” thought they had a way in if they were to adapt Hyeonseo Lee’s bestselling memoir “The Girl with Seven Names,” detailing her harrowing escape from the totalitarian state by crossing the Yalu River that runs along North Korea’s border with China. Though Lee has captivated audiences around the world by sharing her story as a human rights advocate, something quite literally did not sit right with Gavin if she were to rely on her testimony alone for a film, as compelling as it was, and the filmmaker who has allowed herself to spend years to get a story right as a documentarian by moonlighting as an editor on such narrative films as “Luce” and “Nerve,” knew that it would take various pieces to complete a picture of the harsh reality of living under the iron fist of Kim Jong Un.

“Beyond Utopia” ends up as a product of the most sophisticated story structure and the least sophisticated filmmaking technology when Gavin ended up having to rely on footage captured covertly by a network formed by Pastor Kim Sung-eun of the Caleb Mission Church based in South Korea and even some of the defectors they help get across to safety. The film tracks the particularly arduous journey undertaken by the Roh family, which with its five members in tow Pastor Kim is a little less sure of being able to assist than he is typically in the grey zone where they will have to navigate landmines, cross the river in the dead of night and make do with limited cell service when the only signal comes from the Chinese side of the border. While the images can be murky, Gavin makes the reasons for testing the waters clear in using other footage shot by political dissidents to reveal a history of the country that veers sharply from the way North Korea typically presents itself to the world in the few images that do reach the outside world, as well as drawing a parallel to the Rohs who are actively seeking their freedom in following the story of Soyeon Lee, who has safely resettled in Seoul yet desperately seeks the release of her son who has been captured for attempting to defect.

Told with great urgency, the film becomes a gripping white knuckle thriller beyond its purpose as an expose and it seemed almost inevitable that it would score the Audience Award at Sundance when it premiered earlier this year. Now arriving in theaters after a strong festival run, Gavin spoke about how she herself became engrossed in the history of North Korea and gaining and subsequently providing the context necessary to tell a story that properly reflects its citizenry, as well as blending the original intent of a biography of Lee with the twists and turns of an evolving story that could speak to the truth of her experience.

How did this come about?

I was initially approached about Hyeonseo Lee’s memoir “The Girl with Seven Names,” [which] is beautiful and haunting and and began to open a world for me, but I knew from the beginning if I were to do something like this, it would I would have to feel like there was something I could contribute. Her book did inspire curiosity in me and the more research I did, the more curious I became and eventually more obsessed. This was [over] many months, but I read everything I could get my hands on about North Korea and did these very deep internet dives, using different VPNs and I discovered all sorts of things — tidbits of North Korean propaganda and then this hidden hidden camera footage that very brave North Koreans were shooting with in their own country to get the truth out. In the United States, we see on the news basically what the Kim regime wants us, just about their missiles and their parades, and when I started to really feel the pulse of the people and also realized that there was nothing out there that gave voice to these 26 million people that live in North Korea, other than Barbara Demick’s extraordinary book “Nothing to Envy,” I felt like, “Okay, this has to be made.”

How did you realize you could actually tell a story inside North Korea, even if you had to operate at a remove?

From the beginning, I thought that if I were to do this, I wanted to do something experiential and that really did bring the voices of the people forward. Even when I first went to Seoul and was working with Hyeonseo, she and I would talk about ideas and she knew I wanted to do that [approach] and at a certain [point], on the third trip to Seoul, I had I read an article about Pastor Kim and I sought him out. Through conversations with Hyeonseo, even before I met Pastor Kim, we were talking about how this could even be possible and if it were possible, where could it start. There were so many factors to this. We didn’t want to expose the network in any way that could compromise the network or would expose routes. We didn’t want to put anyone who we were following at risk by putting some spotlight on what they were doing. But then when I met Pastor Kim, it took several months for us to get to know each other, but it turned out he also had the same idea like he felt like this is the way to bring the voices of North Koreans forward.

I had the conviction that it had to be done this way and every directive came from Pastor Kim about where we could be in Southeast Asia. We were there but we were not in China, and we have footage from the border of North Korea and China, which is a place that nobody wants to go or should ever have to go. The only reason we have that is because Pastor Kim’s network keeps these cameras hidden along that border and the shooting in China was only by his network and by one family member of the family that was trying to escape. That network is made up of brokers, who do it only for money, and people who are spiritually aligned with Pastor Kim’s mission.

I wondered when you would receive footage, which I imagine is coming back on memory cards without much context, would you actually know what story it was telling?

The footage from inside North Korea was shot by basically two networks – one of them is Pastor Kim’s, [and] it’s not his people inside North Koreans, but North Koreans who are risking their lives to get the truth of their country out to the outside world and they’re shooting with hidden cameras in their pockets. That footage is then brought over to China and because of Pastor Kim’s vast network, that footage is passed to Pastor Kim because he is one of the vehicles to help get the truth of North Korea out. There’s also a person in Japan whose network has provided cameras to North Koreans who want to shoot the truth of their country, so I was also working with [them] in terms of the Roh family. The farmer who initially found the Rohs was shooting some of our footage and [then] the brokers and some of the people who are more aligned with the church missionaries inside North Korea who are part of the underground network, and piecing together the Roh family story, I was getting contacts through phone calls with them when they were along the border of North Korea and China, but in retrospect, I got to know them through Southeast Asia [where they would] contextualize some of the footage that we had received.

In making this film, I wanted people to get to know the Roh family because I do believe in film if you can go deep into one person or one family, it can actually resonate with more people and [just] seeing footage of the family walking through the mountains of China doesn’t really tell you much about who they are because you’re just watching people walk through the mountains. One of the devices I used were [these] interstitials throughout the film [where] I go into a little piece about North Korea, like how their fertilizer system works or that every family in North Korea has to have the portraits of the dear leaders on the wall and those portraits have to be treated with absolute care because if there is dust on them, you can be in punished. First of all, I wanted to crack open the world of North Korea [with those], so that people really understood these very specific stories and details of what people’s lives are like there, but also I felt if you’re seeing the Roh family walking through the mountains, going out to a piece of that and then coming back to them, we’ve actually learned something about them because we’ve learned something about what their life has been like.

Did you know pretty early how the stories of Pastor Kim, the Rohs and ultimately Soyeon Lee could compliment each other as far as offering a complete picture?

Yeah, when Pastor Kim and I decided to work together, we [both] felt we should follow not just one story, but two because you never know what’s going to happen and there may be a way to weave them. These were the two people who approached Pastor Kim after we decided to work together, so it was happenstance that it was these two stories and I always felt that balance of weaving them together was important as well as the third element, which Soyeon really provides, [to get] the details of life inside North Korea and in the end, one story ended up being the best that anyone could possibly have as a North Korean defector, which is making it to South Korea as a family because most North Koreans have to leave people behind and the Roh family are extraordinary in the fact that they came as a group, and then you’ve got Soyeon, the unluckiest who represents what happens to so many families trying to get people out of North Korea.

And then you’re still able to have Hyeonseo Lee to provide a bit of a backbone to this. Was she always in the mix even as you were chasing these other stories?

Initially, when I [told] Hyeonseo I wanted to do something in the present tense, she totally agreed and I didn’t want to do a recreation of her escape or any of that, and what I realized as I got to know her is she has been one of the most high-profile defectors right out of North Korea, known by the regime as Pastor Kim and Soyeon have been for many many years, but she’s also she lived with tremendous guilt. She suffers from critical depression, and on the one hand she’s seen as this successful defector and she’s beautiful and intelligent. And on the other hand, she’s told me many times that whether she’s on a stage in London or New York or in Tokyo, she is always in North Korea in her mind and she has not been able to let that go. So that was the story that I was telling with Hyeonseo and I knew that I wanted to have a counterpoint with some attempted escape.

I actually have all the footage to tell that story with Hyeonseo, which is super important, and we had thought about doing this as a series or as a two-part feature because I knew I couldn’t fit Hyeonseo, the Roh family, Soyeon and getting to know North Korea into one film, but that story of North Koreans assimilating in South Korea is equally as important in a different way and maybe there will be another film with what I do have with her because it’s extraordinary stuff. But in the end, she’s totally so excited about the film. She was in Busan last week at the International Film Festival there and she knew as well we couldn’t fit it all into one film. She’s an amazing person.

You can tell from the film. What’s it been like going out into the world with this?

It’s been it’s been amazing. We had no idea how people were going respond to this film and it’s been so heartening on so many levels. The main thing is that I’m hoping that this will affect policy and will bring more voice to the North Korean people because we talk about the nukes and all of that, but every country should be talking about human rights inside North Korea. Pastor Kim and Soyeon have actually been in the United States most of the last couple of months and we’re starting a call to action for her son, trying to do whatever we can [to secure his release], and I just really hope that this can do something for North Korean people because they’ve been in that country for over 70 years and we have just allowed them to be forgotten. It’s really an outrage that we don’t talk about them all the time whenever we can.

“Beyond Utopia” opens in limited release on November 3rd.

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