Most narratives out of North Korea are bleak. Refugees from the country brave the possibility of murder and imprisonment if they flee, which isn’t helped by the constant threat of extradition back to North Korea if they are discovered in neighboring China.
Shin Dong-Huyk’s personal story in North Korean is unique. Shin was born in a North Korean prison camp, and up until his escape, he knew nothing of life outside of the camp. His earliest memories involve witnessing an execution. As he recounts his life for director Marc Wiese in Camp 14: Total Control Zone, I became struck by the documentary’s excruciating stillness. It’s those moments where sound and movement are absent that seem to highlight the darkest corner’s of Shin’s memories and the real depth of his pain.
[For the next two weeks we will be covering the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, which runs from June 13th to June 23rd. The films at the festival are dedicated to bringing awareness to human rights issues around the world and laying the groundwork for justice and change. For more information and a full schedule, visit ff.hrw.org.]
Camp 14: Total Control Zone
Director: Marc Wiese
Country: Germany/South Korea
Release Date: TBD
How bad are conditions in a North Korean camp? It’s a place of starvation and toil, and no respite. Shin’s first-person account is accompanied by animated recreations of his story as well as hidden-camera footage taken from interrogation rooms and from the outsides of camps. In one video, there’s a crying woman who’s beaten over the head with a stick until it breaks. The guards have little remorse, and they are often arbitrary in their cruelty. Control is exercised by the constant fear of abuse.
The animated sequences are stark and bleak. Much of the color is bled from the figures, and they move slowly. Part of this is just a consequence of the animation style, though I think it’s a good choice since it emphasizes the sheer exhaustion and depression these prisoners face as a reality of their daily lives. There’s no music to force emotion responses in these sequences. Instead, it’s just Shin’s voice over the sounds if wind and rain. Music, even depressing music, wouldn’t communicate the sheer desolation of these camps quite as well as the sounds of near absence and near silence.
It’s pretty remarkable what silence does for Camp 14. Shin mentions how reluctant he is to talk about his experiences, which is understandable given how traumatic they are. When he talks about food rations and beatings, he’s able to provide very calm but quiet disclosures. His voice is meek but it carries. When Shin talks about the fate of his family, he stops multiple times. There’s a blankness on his face, but this hesitation speaks volumes. I was conflicted in these moments. On the one hand, there’s a desire to hear the story of his suffering, and yet his attempts to share it are causing him extreme distress. A written account wouldn’t provide the same sort of palpable anguish as watching a man at a loss for words.
The silence also underlies the contrast of setting in Camp 14. Up until his escape, Shin knew only the confines of a colorless prison camp. It’s so bad that when he broke out, the austerity of the North Korean countryside was magical by comparison. Now, Shin sits in a apartment that’s not ostentatious but quite comfortable. Where he was once starving, he can now go to a Costco. Where his world was once a few hundred meters, it’s opened up considerably now that he’s a speaker at international human rights conferences. He goes to an office of young American activists who are excited to meet him and help spread the word about North Korea’s human rights abuses, and yet Shin’s silence around them (which isn’t just a consequence of the language barrier) makes him seem somber.
What’s also striking about Shin’s testimony is how he remembers his emotional state in the camp. Even though the situation was dire within the camp and he suffered immensely, he remembers laughing as a child. It’s a striking observation, and it may speak to a certain innate innocence of childhood experience, even in the worst of places. Yet this laughter seems tragic. Later, Shin discusses a moment in his life where he didn’t cry. Without saying too much about the incident, he says that he never learned it was right to cry in during situations like this, as if laughter was innate but an expression of grief wasn’t. Instead, just silence.
Two former guards are interviewed in Camp 14, supplementing Shin’s narrative and showing the dark side of those in control. Whereas Shin seems reluctant to talk, the guards go on about what they did like they’re discussing an office job. They beat people, they raped women, they forced many female prisoners to become their mistresses only to kill them. It’s a narrative of the banality of evil, where torture and normalized abuse are all in a day’s work.
What’s unique about Shin’s situation now is his desire to return to North Korea. His home was that camp, his home was that wretched country. It’s all he’s known. This isn’t necessarily a case of Stockholm syndrome, though that does play heavily into it. I think it’s Stockholm syndrome coupled with human nature. We form attachments to early experiences, no matter how traumatic, that establish a sense of normalcy — mom’s home cooking, certain textures, certain shows, certain smells.
Camp 14 is a difficult movie to watch at times, and I think it requires a lot of patience and empathy to sit through. It’s a slow film, and yet so much of its power comes from this slowness. The silence and the stillness are places where an emotional subtext can be read. What still haunts me is the idea of Shin’s innate childhood laughter and his inability to cry when it would seem so natural. Maybe there’s some ember of hope amid all the darkness, or maybe when faced with such horrible circumstances, the nature of laughing is not necessarily an expression of joy.
Camp 14: Total Control Zone screens at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on Thursday, June 20 and Friday, June 21. For tickets and more information, click here.