‘Beyond Utopia’ Director Wants to Honor 26 Million Trapped North Koreans in an ‘Intimate, Profound Way’

TheWrap magazine: Madeleine Gavin says documenting families’ attempted escapes from the authoritarian nation was a lesson in “pure courage”

Beyond Utopia (Roadside Attractions)
Beyond Utopia (Credit: Roadside Attractions)

Madeleine Gavin’s thriller-documentary chronicles the attempt by one family to escape the starvation regime of North Korea. Told in an intense style, without any staged scenes or recreations, it features as much real-life drama as any fictional prison-break movie.

The filmmaker and editor, whose credits include “City of Joy” and “What I Want My Words to Do to You: Voices from Inside a Women’s Maximum Security Prison,” spoke to TheWrap about trying to ensure safety for her subjects — while making a present-tense documentary about one of the most dangerous places in the world.

Your film doesn’t include recreations or staged footage, which is stated in a title card at the beginning. But how much brutality, including the torture of North Korean defectors, could you show without losing the audience?
That was a tough balancing act and something that we grappled with. There was a certain amount of brutality that we needed to include early on, so that the audience understood why they were fleeing and what they were fleeing
from.

I went into this project with the strong desire to bring all of us face to face with people of North Korea in a very intimate, profound way. There are 26 million of them who have been trapped there for more than 70 years.

Is it possible to feel optimistic while telling a story like this?
I guess I can feel optimism in the sense that we follow attempted escapes out of North Korea and there is positive energy in that. Just in the pure courage and the momentum of an act like that. After watching the film, a lot of people have actually said to me that it is one of the most tragic and heartbreaking — and yet one of the most hopeful — films. Which is really important.

For context, you do chart the country’s history over the last 75 years. And embodied within your film is the key to a free North Korea, right?
Yes, it’s the exchange of information. That’s what these incredibly brave North Koreans are trying to do by risking their lives when they film with flip phones from their pockets and their sleeves inside North Korea. To get the truth out and then help content getting in. Because people in North Korea are told that they live in the best country in the world. So showing the North Koreans that actually, no, that is not true – this is something that Kim Jong Un is absolutely terrified of.

And we do learn things about the country that many of us might not know. Children are forced to watch executions. Religious books are outlawed, because North Korea’s leaders have plagiarized so much of their own mythology from those texts.
Right, especially the Bible. You know, when I go on to talk about the Bible being banned or the country’s poop system [citizens transport their own waste on trucks for farming], what I was thinking about was finding some specificity about this particular country.

And also, crucially, when the film shifts back to the family who is escaping, we’ve learned something more about what they’ve experienced and where they’re from. Because as we see in the film, North Koreans who have made it out of the country then have to grapple with the fact that much of what they believe is a lie is very, very challenging for them. I wanted to respect that.

The hero of your movie is Seoul-based Pastor Seungeun Kim, who facilitates complex and dangerous escape plans for North Koreans. How did you gain his trust?
I felt that I needed to do something in the present tense. An important subject in our film is Soyeon Lee, who defected years ago. And she and I would brainstorm about this and she was very much on board with the idea of a present-tense story. Then I met Pastor Kim in 2019. It did take many months for him to trust us. We explained we were really interested in showing what North Koreans go through both inside their country and in attempting to escape and it took some time to convince Pastor Kim that we weren’t going to half-ass this.

Part of that must have been assurances that you were not going to jeopardize the safety of the escapees?
Absolutely, it was a huge concern from start to finish. Our policy was that we would not do anything that wasn’t already being done by the “Underground Railroad.” First off, none of us were in China, because that would have drawn attention. Pastor Kim doesn’t even go into China anymore because he’s at risk of being kidnapped into North Korea. Other NGOs and policy experts in South Korea and the U.S. were involved in every single decision. Obviously our subjects were at risk and they knew that. The most important thing was that we didn’t put them at any greater risk.

And what about your own personal safety? People might not remember that the 2014 Sony hack was done by North Korea in retaliation to the comedy film “The Interview.”
The consensus was that Kim Jong Un’s reaction to “The Interview” was based on him being mocked and humiliated. But in our film, what we actually say about Kim Jong Un is not really that different from what you hear on the news. He is a brutal dictator. And by all accounts, that characterization doesn’t bother him.

A version of this story first appeared in the SAG Preview/Documentary issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from that issue here.

Lily Gladstone Wrap cover
Photo by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap

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