There are plenty of times when I draw a blank with interview questions, but it’s usually in the case of films I don’t like or those that are just so-so. This time it was different. After watching the partly animated documentary Camp 14: Total Control Zone I was totally speechless. I wrote a lot of notes about the film down, and I’ve been able to spread word of endorsement, but in terms of what to ask director Marc Wiese, it took me longer than normal.
Basically, the film blew my mind with its unbelievable story of Shin Dong-Huyk, a young man who escaped from a North Korean labor camp. Interviews with Shin and two former guards from the camp also spotlight some of the most incredible, complicated and absorbing subjects I’ve seen in a film in a long time. So I started rather simply, with the easiest question there is, and fortunately the conversation grew out enough from there (including some stuff potentially deemed spoilers). Read our talk in full below, and see this film if it (hopefully) gets a distribution deal.
DOC Channel Blog: How did you come across this story?
Marc Wiese: I was shooting another documentary in Washington, and I just saw, by chance, a little article about Shin in the Washington Post. I read that this guy was born and raised up in this concentration camp and that he had no idea that the world beyond the fence is different, and I knew in ten seconds that I want to tell this story. Just to compare, if you take guys like, for example, Nelson Mandela, he stayed 25 years in jail, but he had a life before jail. So he had an idea of freedom. He had an idea to wish for freedom, to receive freedom back. Shin never had a chance to even develop an idea of freedom or wish for that.
I phoned a friend living in Seoul, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, and I said, “Come on, I want to find this guy. I want to meet him.” He arranged it, and I flew to Seoul and met Shin for the first time in 2008. In the beginning, Shin was totally traumatized. He couldn’t look at me more than five seconds. He was always looking down, and after half an hour he said, “I have too much of a headache. I have to leave.” In the end, we made the film together over a period of two years.
Do you think there is relevance to this being a German production and thinking about your own country’s past? I wouldn’t ask except that the one guards likens himself to the Gestapo at one point.
Here at the Toronto Film Festival there is a Margarethe von Trotta film about Hannah Arendt, and they are comparing the two films a lot. That’s a feature film, but they are comparing it with Camp 14. Of course, I even had a strong, strong reminder, in a way, when I was interviewing the guards. There’s a famous film, a documentary, about the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. And he’s acting like a bureaucrat, and he had killed millions of people. These two guards reminded me of him. Very much, I must confess. They are sitting there not feeling guilty, and there’s a huge parallel.
I mean, they are dominated by a system. They believe so much in the system that even killing people is okay. The good thing is, in the film, one of the guards begins to realize what he has done. In the interview. He started saying, “I’ve done the right thing, and I never felt guilty. It was for our state, our leader.” But in the end, he said, “What have I done? I feel so guilty. I feel so ashamed.” That is so rare, that you are able to find a guy like that, who starts to reflect on himself in front of the camera.
Were you just expecting them to be cold and matter-of-fact the whole time?
Well, the commander, for example, the second one, Oh Yangnam, expected for the interview to be about Shin. And then I started to make it about his whole life. The interview lasted for about six hours, on his role in the system, his education — he told me stories of how he was educated in taekwondo, and they would go into the camps and take prisoners, tell them to run away and then hunt them for training, killing them with taekwondo kicks. The interview developed to the point where he began to reflect on himself. It was never planned. It was never talked about before. I never told him, “I want to know what you are thinking of your own work today.” I never did that. It developed within the six hours.
One thing you never present in the film, neither in their interviews nor elsewhere, is how and why the guards left the camp and North Korea. Would it be possible to fill us in on that?
That’s funny, and it’s a short answer. Of course I asked both guards, “What is the reason you escaped, and how did you escape?” And both guards, independently from each other, gave me the same answer. “I’m not telling you in front of the camera.” They never answered me.
Let’s talk about the animation. There’s something eerier about having the reenactments animated. I also think, and this goes for if anyone tried to do a narrative feature of the story, there is no tone existing in dramatic cinema that would do it justice. What were your thoughts on employing that technique?
That was a really long process. We started in the beginning asking five companies, and they each had to give us an example. Very quick. They decided, “Ali [Soozandeh] is the guy. He has to do it.” He had made another documentary, The Green Wave, which was very successful. So we said okay.
But then it was a long process. For example, in the beginning they started to draw torturing scenes. And I said it’s not possible. We can not do it. We have to capture an atmosphere of fear, but we can not show the torture in an animated scene. I think it’s ridiculous. You can not bring it into an animated scene. No way. Then another level was to find the color of the pictures and to make it in different weather atmospheres, foggy and… then to bring only this one red flag in. One color spot in a nearly black and white picture.
It was a long way. There were times when I’m sure these guys hated me. They would come to me and say they had the final versions of the animated scenes. And I’d say, “No, you’re not ready. I don’t like this. We have to change this.” That happened eight, ten times. But we had lots of time, and we are very, very satisfied with these scenes. The reaction especially to the animated scenes is very good. Of course, it was a big risk. To bring a story like Shin’s and animate it is, I think, easily very ridiculous. You have to be very careful. We are satisfied with the result.
Tell me about filming Shin’s interviews. I definitely get the long pauses. I’ve seen people refer to them as awkward pauses. But I appreciate them more as, they give us the space needed to think about what we’ve just heard.
He needed lots of breaks. It was very exhausting for him. For example, we talked about the torture in the prison, when he was 14 and tortured for seven months. After this interview, he disappeared for four days. I had no idea where he was. He just disappeared. In the film there is a scene where he says, “It’s too stressful and too exhausting. I need a break.” In reality, in the raw shooting material, there is a scene like that ten or fifteen times. Him just saying, “Look, it’s too much. I need to finish today.” We were just shooting two hours a day, nothing more.
For two weeks we did the interview, nothing else. It was too tough for him. He really returned into this world. He had extreme nightmares in these two weeks. Another example: I told him I would finish the edit and come to Seoul and show him. And he said, “No, Marc. I don’t want to see the film.” I said, “What? It’s your film. Our film. I’m the director and you’re the main person. I want to show you.” And he said, “No, I don’t want to see it, because it’s too tough for me to see it.” I’m full of respect that he did it for us.
The final question involves a bit of a spoiler. Sort of. But I’m giving readers the option not to read further before seeing the film (and you really should see the film).
At the end, Shin reveals the shocking fact that he wants to go back to the camp. Is this something he had been talking about, or might it be something he came to realize while doing the interviews, like the commander’s own personal realization?
I think he has felt it for a long time. He realized it over the months and years in Seoul. He can’t handle his life there. For me, it was totally surprising. For two weeks he was telling me of this horrifying hell, and suddenly in the end he’s telling me that he wants to go back into this hell. It was so surprising that I asked again a few times, to be sure. But there was no misunderstanding. He really meant that he wanted to go back into the camp. I could hear in the Korean language that he said the word for camp. We translated it again and again, and it’s true.
He has no idea how to manage his life in Seoul. It’s too competitive for him, and he’s too traumatized from it. That is a world he knows, and it’s the only world he knows. I think that’s why he wants to go back. And he would go back if the North Korean authorities would let him in. But the reality is he can’t even travel to China. He wanted to one time, and I said, “Don’t do it, man. They’ll kill you. They’ll send you directly back to North Korea and you’ll be publicly executed the next day.”
He gave interviews to BBC and stuff like that. The North Korean authorities know very well who Shin Dong-Huyk is. He’s the only known case that somebody has managed to escape out of a camp in the “total control zone.” So, there they don’t like him much.
Camp 14: Total Control Zone debuted at TIFF yesterday. It screens at the fest again tomorrow night and Sunday morning. For more details, see the doc’s film guide entry.