N. C. Heikin's documentary about the North opens in the South
A scene from the documentary "Kimjongilia", which uses elements of theater and operatic propaganda from North Korea to tell the stories of 12 North Korean defectors. The documentary focuses more on North Korea's human rights violations than on criticism of the communist regime. Provided by Cracker Pictures
What do you get a dictator for his birthday? When Kim Jong-il turned 46, he was given a hybrid red begonia created just for him. The name of the flower, kimjongilia, also serves as the title of a 2009 documentary by N.C. Heikin. But in contrast to the bright symbol the flower is meant to convey, Heikin's film is a dark journey into the isolated regime as told through the stories of those who fled from it.
"I was struck by the absurd idea of the flower", Heikin told reporters at a press conference in central Seoul last week. "It is a flower that blooms in February so it is extremely difficult to cultivate. However, those who did not succeed in cultivating the flowers were executed".
"Kimjongilia", which was released yesterday in Korea, premiered at Sundance in 2009 and received the One World Best Human Rights Documentary award in the Czech Republic last year. Its release comes amidst a handful of recent films dealing with North Korea, including "Poongsan", about a delivery man asked to smuggle a young woman across the border, and "The Journals of Musan", which depicts the struggle of one North Korean defector as he tries to adjust to life in Seoul.
Heikin said she was inspired to make the film after an encounter with defector Kang Chul-hwan, who she met at a human rights conference in Japan in 2002, and it was then that she learned that concentration camps still exist in North Korea.
"I knew I had to do something to expose the staggering crimes against humanity taking place in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea [the DPRK]", she is quoted on the film's Web site as saying. "The idea of the existence of concentration camps in today's world was simply unacceptable".
The film is based upon interviews with 12 North Korean defectors and each one has a compelling story to tell. Heikin spent about three years seeking and interviewing the defectors.
"I developed the deepest respect for these survivors rebuilding their lives, but willing to share their painful pasts", she said on the Web site. "At the same time, another story began to emerge - a cautionary tale of an entire nation held captive by mass repression and forced cult worship".
With a background in the theater as an actress and director at La Mama, an experimental theater in New York, Heikin integrates dance into the story along with operatic propaganda from North Korea to heighten the impact of the scenes.
When asked if she has had any contact with North Korea since the film's release, Heikin said at the press conference that she hadn't but that the film had certainly caught the North's attention. When she watched a debate on North Korea hosted by Al Jazeera, to which she had been invited but could not participate in, the North's spokesperson had just a few words to say about the film.
"I heard that at the debate, the spokesperson called my movie a lie", she said.
By Sohn Hanna Contributing writer
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2015 51st PaekSang Arts Awards