The first time I saw Kimjongilia, I was in the refugee center office near Yangjae station, huddled around a computer monitor with a North Korean Human Rights activist named Robert Park. It’s been almost two years since then, but I still remember that moment vividly. And since I have the memory capacity of a grapefruit, this says something about the power NC Heiken’s documentary holds.
Kimjongilia is an artistic piece that gives us a very real and emotional perspective on the humanitarian crisis in North Korea directly from those who know it best, the North Koreans who risked their lives to escape it. The film interweaves the unbelievable experiences of a dozen North Korean defectors with evocative music and dance.
That fall so many months ago, when I first saw the film, I remember being excited that we were among the first to see this documentary that many believed could become a great asset to our awareness raising efforts. I remember the anger, the pain, and the sense of urgency the words of the witnesses conjured. I remember wishing the whole world would be confronted with their stories, and I remember hoping that their stories would make the world move. And now, two years later, the movie has finally found itself in the high-rise theaters of Seoul.
On Tuesday, June 28, at 7pm, Kimjongilia had an opening at the Daehakno CGV movie theater. There was no red carpet for the “stars” or directors of the film; there were few, if any, members of the press. The lobby boasted no signs advertising the film or the “Cinema Talk” at which the director would speak. The film was shown in the basement. Isolated from all of the other, happy films.
Because the film should be seen and not merely discussed, I’ve settled on recounting the dialogue which took place during the Q&A. The following is the gist of the dialogue between the director and the audience, which also includes a few comments made by the director’s husband, Robert.
MEDIATOR: Thank you so much for coming here today. Would you please tell us a bit about yourself and give us a brief introduction as to how you became aware of the North Korean situation and how you came to work on this project.
NC HEIKIN: Thank you. First of all, I’d like to thank you all for coming. I’m thrilled to see such a great turnout. I hope that you will tell your friends and the people you know about it as well.
I am so appreciative that Mr. Chae, the activist who spent four years in Chinese prison, Ed Lee, our volunteer interpreter, and Sol Lee, one of the dancers in the film, have all come here to be with us tonight.
I was first introduced to the crisis when my husband was invited to attend a North Korean Human Rights conference in Tokyo by his friend, Pierre Rigoulet, the co-author of Kang Chol-hwan’s book Aquariums of Pyongyang. At the conference, I heard Kang Chol-hwan’s stories, basically those of a child being dragged from his home and taken to a concentration camp, and I was deeply disturbed. I come from a Jewish background, I’m Jewish, so the mention of concentration camps was very upsetting. I felt a personal responsibility to do something to ensure that what happened in the Holocaust did not happen again.
MEDIATOR: When did you first come to Korea?
NC HEIKIN: I first came in 2005 and met Sunny Cho, the Korean producer of the film, whom I am so grateful to for her support. Without her there would be no film.
In 2009 I came back and showed Kimjongilia at the Busan film festival. The response was incredible. People said, “why don’t we know about this?” and “what can we do?”
To be honest, I was very afraid of what the South Korean reaction would be, since I’m American and there’s quite a bit of anti-American sentiment in South Korea, well, everywhere. But I’ve had overwhelmingly positive responses. In fact, in Busan during the Q&A, I listened nervously as a woman went on and on in Korean, with what I thought was criticism. However, the interpreter told me she’d only said that since the film was so scary she’d expected a big man, but instead here I was, “kind of little” and “kind of cute.”
MEDIATOR: Were there other important North Korean Human Rights films before yours? If so, what sets yours apart?
NC HEIKIN: Yes, I think one movie in particular, Seoul Train, a film focused on the “underground railroad” in place to assist refugees making their way out of North Korea, was very important. Many of you may have also seen Crossing, a dramatic version of a true and very tragic story of a refugee and his family, or Yodok Stories, a musical theater piece put together by North Korean defectors, who then made a movie based on their experiences with the musical. I think Kimjongilia is different from these films because it’s the first film where we just hear the North Koreans tell their stories. People are shocked just to see that these people are human beings, to see their humanity; this has really helped to open people’s eyes.
AUDIENCE: In South Koreans minds, this is a very political film. What do you have to say about that?
NC HEIKIN: Well, I tried to keep the focus on human rights, but there’s no way to say you’re not accusing “you know who” of crimes against humanity. We did our best not to talk about left, right, the cold war, the past. But there’s no question that putting children in concentration camps is a crime against humanity, and no one made Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il do that, not the Americans, not the Soviets.
ROBERT: If you expose the concentration camps, you expose the regimes. It was the same thing with the Soviet Gulags. When they were exposed it was a massive blow to the system.
AUDIENCE: Is Kim Jong Il like Saddam? Has the North Korean army been so brainwashed that we need something like the United Nations to step in and abolish the regime, assassinate the leader, like they did with Saddam?
NC HEIKIN: It’s not my place to send American or South Korean or United Nations troops to war. If there was a magic bullet, for sure… I don’t know enough about Saddam to say how comparable he is to Kim Jong Il, but I think the UN would do something if they could; I think China is blocking a lot. It’s a very difficult problem.
AUDIENCE: Thank you very much for your film, but I want to play devil’s advocate and talk about the role of the dances in the film. I think the dancers could have made a fantasy for western viewers. I think this is Orientalism and I wonder if that was necessary. The dances didn’t seem true to what North Koreans would have done. It was very weird for me.
NC HEIKIN: You know, I don’t exactly know what “Orientalism” is but I used to be a dancer. Mrs. Kim, one of the main “characters” from the film was a dancer in North Korea. I decided to put dancing in the film because this is an emotional film. I was hoping to not throw the viewer out of the emotion in between dialogues. I wanted to carry the audience through. Often in documentaries you get these reconstructed scenes. You always know they are not real, so you leave the emotion. Dance is abstract, so I thought maybe it could carry something along.
The costume one of the dancers wears was based on the costume worn by the North Korean traffic cop you see in images of Pyongyang. To me, she looked like a dancer in the middle of the street. The other dance is based on that of a real-life South Korean dancer. I was making the film in Paris, and there happened to be two South Korean dancers there, Sol Lee, and Yumi Ahn. The movements they did were from their own hearts.
The style of dance in North Korea is socialist realism dance, so I don’t know how “real” that is either.
ROBERT: It’s one thing to know there’s a dictatorship in North Korea and one thing to hear their stories. There’s so much horror, so much emotion that the viewer has the potential of pulling out. One of the roles of the dancers in this film is to allow the viewer to absorb the stories, allow the viewer to breathe a little.
AUDIENCE: Why did you conclude the film the way you did, with the defectors giving their thoughts about their homeland, their future?
NC HEIKIN: I wanted to show what they thought about the future. That many of them love their country, have hope, want to go back and build a bright, shining country. I think that’s good to show.
AUDIENCE: I totally agree with you. And I think Kim Jong Il and his family are the core of the devil. Above all, thank you very much for making this film even as a foreigner, a dancer, and actress. I pray, and we pray, for the spreading of this film all over the world and Korea, and I pray for Kim Jong Il to be assassinated soon.
NC HEIKIN: Thank you, it’s moments like this that make being an artist worthwhile. Thank you. But I want to say, I’m not a foreigner. I’m a human being. This is a human being story.
ROBERT: When a North Korean is killed the whole of humanity is killed. During the Holocaust, a famous Jew said this, “when a concentration camp prisoner is beaten, the whole of humanity is beaten.”
AUDIENCE: Given North Korea’s isolationist nature, what function do you see your movie playing?
NC HEIKIN: The movie can inspire people. That’s what movies can do. This movie can inspire. Human’s hearts must be engaged to action.
I hope you’ll see Kimjongilia and support it, and tell your friends about it. For more information about Kimjongilia, or to become involved with the North Korean Human Rights movement, please check out the following links below.