German filmmaker Marc Wiese throws a light on North Korea's labour camp system in the feature documentary, Camp 14: Total Control Zone. At the centre is Shin Dong-hyuk, a young Korean who was born in Camp 14, where he would also have died if he hadn't escaped, in 2005. His tales of horror are given extra weight by Hyuk Kwon, a former officer in Camp 22, and Oh Yang-nam, an ex member of North Korea's secret police.
Marc, is Camp 14: Total Control a film about how people can be conditioned by a system?
"Yes, exactly. There is one scene where Kwon is shown at home. It is 50-60 seconds, and it took me three months to get the access. But it was very important to show that he is a regular family father, like you and me. This raises the question, I say at every Q & A, of: 'Okay, it's very easy to talk about human rights; to live it is another thing. So, how would we react in a system like that?' So Camp 14 is, for me, a film about how a system is able to format three people."
The extent of Shin's conditioning is shocking.
"A little episode: Shin was being beaten every day - and a lot of times he was beaten really badly - so one day I said to him during the research, 'Hey, every day, 20 years, means more than 7000 times.' But he was not, and until today he is not, able to develop a real anger against the guards. He still thinks, 'I'd done something wrong, it was their right to beat me.'"
The line between perpetrator and victim becomes blurred in the film. In that respect it reminded me of Primo Levi's The Grey Zone.
"Yeah, it's fascinating. I know Primo Levi very well, and I like his work very much, because it's similar in a way. It's never so simple that you can say you have perpetrators, you have victims. And, of course, for me as a filmmaker it was very, very interesting to work with Shin and go into his world, and begin to learn more and more, and to find out more and more of his way of thinking."
The two guards seem like ordinary people. Is the film a warning, on one level, that under certain conditions, we might all be capable of acting like them?
"No, it's not a warning. A warning is too much. I just want to make people think. I don't want to give a warning. But don't take me the wrong way, it's a film about how the guards are formatted but still, in the end, you have to be able to act like that as a perpetrator. Me, personally, I never say I would be a hero in a system like that, a dictatorship. But, I am convinced that I am not able to rape a woman just because somebody is telling me, or the whole system is showing me, or the reality in the camp is showing me, I can do it.
"So, no, the perpetrators are no warning. I want to make people think with this scene with the family; I want, in a way, to confuse them in that moment. I told my assistant that if we use the interview without the scene, he's like a monster, a Hannibal Lecter, and that makes it very easy for the audience to distance themselves."
Is working with perpetrators something new for you?
"No, I've worked this way in other documentaries. I showed the audience people that appeared very kind and very sympathetic, and they said, 'What? Great guy!' And then suddenly they realised he's a real war criminal. Or they realised, from Palestine, he has sent 21 suicide attackers who blew themselves up in Jerusalem. I like to work that way. The audience has to think about it."
Read the entire interview here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/stephen-applebaum/camp-14-total-control-zone_b_3961984.html
Interview copyright Stephen Applebaum, 2013