“Beyond Utopia” gives an amazing look at the lengths people will go to for freedom. The new documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it has attracted interest from several streaming companies, takes viewers on a harrowing journey as a family risks everything to escape North Korea.
For director Madeleine Gavin, “Beyond Utopia” is an opportunity to change the conversation around the oppressive regime by shifting the focus away from its brutal leader, Kim Jong-un, and toward ordinary citizens oppressed and neglected by the country.
“As I researched this film, I became more and more outraged that no one was talking about the North Koreans,” says Gavin. “I wanted to open up that world to people. Too often, we focus on what North Korea’s leaders want us to focus on, which is their nuclear weapons. That is their only profit. Without them they would not exist as a country. We hear about missile launches, parades and Kim Jong-un watching, smiling and laughing.”
Initially, Gavin was approached to make a documentary about Hyeonseo Lee, a defector who wrote the memoir “The Girl With Seven Names.” But while researching that project, Gavin learned about the underground railroad used by North Koreans to flee the country, which took them to China, Laos, Vietnam and eventually South Korea.
This put him in touch with Pastor Seunjeun Kim, a South Korean man who helps defectors through his network of volunteers. Lee appears as an expert on North Korea in the film, but much of “Beyond Utopia” involves the Ro family of five, as they flee the Chinese border with the help of Pastor Kim’s associates, and then take refuge in a series of safe houses. . The movie documents Soyeon Lee’s efforts to get her son out of North Korea, so that he can join her in South Korea, where he now lives.
“Pastor Kim is incredibly protective of her network and the people she is trying to help rescue,” Gavin said. “As a result, it took many months to get to know him and gain his trust. Once that happened, however, Pastor Kim helped take our project to unimaginable places. Finally, he gives us the opportunity to embed and document two attempts at defection. No other film has ever entered that world the way we were able to, and Pastor Kim was at the center of that.”
In the final product, there is extraordinary footage of Rowe stumbling through the dense jungle, trying to evade the authorities, much of it shot with iPhone and flip-phone cameras. Also includes interviews with defectors at various stops in Southeast Asia. In order to keep Pastor Kim’s network intact, Gavin changes some of the details of the journey.
“China is closely allied with North Korea, and there’s no way we filmmakers can shoot there without putting families at risk,” says Gavin. “Pastor Kim cannot travel to China because he has been known by the regime for decades. However, his network of brokers and farmers along the border between China and North Korea was able to help the defectors and shoot footage along the way.”
In the past, North Korea has reacted dramatically to attempts to paint the regime in an unfavorable light. US authorities say the country carried out an embarrassing hack of Sony Pictures in retaliation for the studio’s release of “The Interview,” a Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy that skewered Kim Jong-un. Was Gavin concerned about his safety?
“At first, we were concerned,” says Gavin. “But the more I learn about the North Korean government, the less concerned I am. Kim Jong-un is called brutal this And that Every time he is mentioned in the news. Apparently he doesn’t mind it at all. The reason the Sonny thing bothered him so much was that he was ridiculed.
The saddest part of “Beyond Utopia” may be its coda. Due to COVID-19 and China’s new restrictions on travel, it has become increasingly difficult for Pastor Kim and his associates to help defectors who want to flee North Korea.
“It’s terrifying,” says Gavin. “It’s just going to lead to a lot more suffering.”