Marc Wiese discusses his harrowing expose of life inside North Korea's brutal labour camp system, where for many, the only way out is death
They said never again after the Holocaust. But inhumanity and murder on a mass scale has repeatedly been a feature of the decades since the discovery and liberation of the camps in Eastern Europe, and grist for the mill for documentary-makers.
Joshua Oppenheimer's mind-bending The Act of Killing, for example, recently brought us chillingly face to face with an ageing, charismatic killer from Indonesia's anti-Communist genocide, who dances the cha-cha on the rooftop where he murdered hundreds of victims with a wire noose. Where that film valuably recalled suppressed events from almost 50 years ago, the German film-maker Marc Wiese's more sober - but no less unforgettable or illuminating - Camp 14: Total Control Zone, now tells of horrors that could be happening actually as you read this, in North Korea, in prison camps so vast that they show up on Google Earth.
Some are re-education facilities, where the inmates can hope to be released after a period of hard labour and immersion in revolutionary doctrine. The “total control zone”, however, is a life sentence, with death the only exit. Except for Shin Dong-hyuk: born in Camp 14, he escaped, aged 23, in 2005, and in Wiese's film gives a harrowing, faltering account of his life in a world where people like him, in the words of Hyuk Kwon, a former commander in Camp 22, and Oh Yang-nam, an ex secret service policeman, are regarded as lower than worms or flies.
Shin, who recently gave testimony before a UN Commission, would rather not talk about the past, but he cannot escape it. Physically, in the film, he is in Seoul. Mentally and emotionally, he is still back in Camp 14 (a point occasionally underscored by subtle sound effects on the film's minimalist soundtrack). To date, he is the only known person to have been born in a total control zone camp and escaped, and some have questioned his story. “We made something like 15 lie detector tests with him,” says Wiese, who first read about the young Korean in the Washington Post. By now there can be little doubt of his veracity, or that his experiences weigh heavily on him.
The producers wanted to shoot him talking in a studio, but “that was impossible,” says the filmmaker. “I had to build him a setting where he felt comfortable.” Instead, they worked in Shin's home, in a bare space with bedding on the floor, similar to the way he lived with his mother, as a child, in the camp. Even then, “it was complicated for him”.
They talked for two hours a day for two weeks, with Shin often pausing, as he wrestled with his memories, and asking for breaks. In the film, he grimly describes how, at 14, he was tortured with fire in the camp's prison. “After that he went missing for two or three days,” recalls Wiese. “I had no idea where he was. It was extremely exhausting for him. He had nightmares in the night. He was really going back.”
The director's work has taken him from the Bosnian war to Palestine, Belfast and South Africa; he has talked to war criminals and people who have ordered suicide bombings. Even he was shocked, though, by Shin's reply when, hoping to start the film with an upbeat story, he asked him for a memory from when he was four. “So he told me, 'I have a memory; it was a public execution.' I said, 'Did your mother talk to you about that? Did she try to help you?' He looked at me and was shaking his head, and he said, 'No. For what? It was happening every week.' And just for me, personally, I said, 'Shin, what did your mother teach you?' and he said, 'Only one thing: how to survive there.'”
Survival meant living by the rules, which included informing on anyone in breach of camp regulations. When Shin overhead his mother apparently plotting to help his brother escape, he told his teacher. Later, he had to watch as his mother was publicly hanged and his brother killed by firing squad. He felt nothing. If he hadn't informed, he and his father would probably have been executed, he says. This revelation takes Camp 14: Total Control Zone into the area of Primo Levi's “grey zone”, where the distinction between victim and perpetrator becomes disturbingly blurred.
“For me, this was never a victim story,” explains Wiese. “That would be, honestly, boring. Camp 14 is, for me, a film which is showing how a system is able to format [condition] three people.
“In the beginning, Shin and the two guards are very opposite. But in the middle, as he is talking about his mother's execution and they are talking about torture, they are very parallel. Shin is saying, 'Well, she did something wrong.' And the perpetrators are saying, 'Well, of course we tortured. Of course we executed. They told us we have to, so we did.'”
Able to act with impunity, the guards beat, killed and raped prisoners on a whim. While Yang-nam questions what he did – something that Wiese has never experienced professionally with any perpetrator he has interviewed – Kwon, chillingly, shows no remorse.
“I'm convinced that he has a sadistic side because he's smiling,” says Wiese. “He's talking about rape. It's impossible to smile. Around 50% of the material with him was simply not usable. It was too tough. It made a freak show out of Camp 14.” Still, it may yet serve a purpose: “If ever a human rights court is established for North Korea, they can have my raw material, and it's enough to sentence them both.”
Meanwhile, Shin is struggling to find peace outside the camp. On the surface, he seems to be functioning perfectly well, says Wiese, who always thought it was “a miracle” that he wasn't “in a clinic for mental disease, eating medicine the whole day”. However, when the director encouraged him to give an acceptance speech for an award at a film festival in The Hague, the truth surfaced.
“He went on stage and said he's very happy, and then suddenly he began to cry like hell. I mean, an Asian person crying in public is a total no go. You never do that. So, he was crying, and then he said into the microphone, 'The chance that my father is living is one per cent or less. But if he's still alive, and so are all the other people, it's happening right now, in this moment, and that makes me terribly sad.' So, if you go down into deeper levels in his personality, he's still totally traumatised. And still totally formatted.”
So much so, in fact, that in the film he expresses nostalgia for his old life and a desire to be back in Camp 14. Struggling in the highly competitive environment of Seoul, he told Wiese he would like a family, because he had a girlfriend at the time, but didn't know if he could live as one.
Will he ever escape his past? Taught only how to survive as a child, “he has a mass of work to do,” says Wiese. “I'm not sure he will ever be like you and me. I'm really not sure.”
A version of this story appeared in The Guardian newspaper, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/sep/19/north-korea-prison-camp-14-documentary
Copyright Stephen Applebaum, 2014