[21 June 2013]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I wanted to check whether the world he told me about really existed.”
“In the camp, everyone watches everyone. That’s the rule.” Seated at the bottom of a narrow stairway in his apartment, Shin Dong-hyuk wears a red t-shirt. As he speaks, he leans slightly to the right, away from the wall, still facing the camera. That camera remains stationary as Shin recalls, in harrowing fragments, his life in a North Korean labor camp, where he was born in 1982.
This simple seeming image recurs throughout in the documentary Camp 14 - Total Control Zone, screening at both the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York and at AFI Docs in DC. You also see Shin in other situations, brushing his teeth before his bathroom mirror, shopping for milk in a massive supermarket in Seoul, where he lives now, as well as traveling to human rights conferences, where he speaks, agrees to interviews, poses for photos with admirers. You also see in other ways, in animated illustrations of his memories, his emaciated six-year-old or 14-year-old self, dwarfed by armed guards or barbed wire fences, or his father standing beside him as they watch his mother and brother being executed.
Each of these images is startling in its own way, from the ruthlessness of the animated boy’s interrogations to the live man’s look of mild surprise, awash in the supermarket’s fluorescent lighting. You might also be horrified by two other interviews, with former guards, who insist they only did what was “normal,” torturing children, shooting prisoners, raping women, and now, smoking cigarettes and pacing, as they ponder the very concept of guilt. “I never wanted to give an interview like this one,” says Oh Yang-nam, promising himself this is the last time he’ll talk about what he did.
Still, and even as you might gasp at such self-accounting, the interview on the stairs is startling every time you see it. This not only for the multiple traumas Shin describes—watching other children beaten to death or catching rats and insects to eat—but also for his demeanor now, so quiet, so thoughtful, so damaged. “Many people have called me recently,” he says, “They ask me to tell my story. I often feel very tired and exhausted, that’s why I say no to such requests.” And so he leans, again. To his right, the deep focus shot reveals his front door, two pairs of shoes neatly arranged before it.
Such details, revealed in Marc Wiese’s documentary gradually and precisely, help to make a kind of sense out of chaos, revealing both the effects that Shin can articulate and those he cannot. His pain is visible as he remembers his decision, as a child, to inform his teacher of his mother and brother’s plan to escape, even as he also wonders whether they might have been saying what he thought he heard them saying. He remembers being angry at his mother, at having a “tough time” when he was tortured, because the teacher lied about what he knew about the boy. He remembers seeing the executions, and believing that his father, beside him, “had tears in his eyes.” Asked he cried too, Shin says no. “I hadn’t learned that you’re supposed to cry when you mother is executed,” he says, only that he was supposed to report what he heard. Here he stops, puts his face in his hands, and asks, gently, “Please translate what I’ve said.”
The interview on the stairs appears in the movie in pieces, each another step, not necessarily connected or following from another. At one moment he itches his arm, leaning right, again. At another, he asks for time, because the memory has turned “very sensitive.” And at another, he remembers an older cellmate, a man who was not born in the camps, who once lived a life outside. “His stories about the food awakened my curiosity,” Shin says, not quite smiling. He wanted to taste chicken, he recalls, and so, he began to plan his own escape.
That Shin did escape is his own miracle: he’s the only person known to have been born in a camp and escape from it. Today, he says, his body lives in South Korea, but, “In my mind, I still live in the camp.” He misses it, Shin says, or rather, “I miss the purity of my heart, I miss my innocent heart.” As he speaks, he sits on the stairs, but the camera is close on his face, so the background becomes abstract angles, the planes of wood and shelving and even the doorframe now transformed into lines and shadows, the space of the apartment, of his memory, flattened.
Camp 14 closes with another image, Shin riding in a train, his face in a window alive with blurred reflections, and then an intertitle stating that some 200,000 inmates remain lost in North Korean labor camps. The transitions here, from Shin’s perpetual stillness to his paradoxical movement to what might best be described as a devastating statistic, underscore Shin’s particular genius, not only for surviving but also for sharing his story, again and again, if not recovering all that he’s lost, at least creating some control over his life now, however illusory.
Wrong Time, Wrong Place (2013)
Such illusion, so essential to making sense of any life, shapes another documentary at AFI Docs, Wrong Time, Wrong Place. John Appel’s film opens with a gorgeous long take of a base jumper in flight. As you might appreciate the abject freedom connoted by this moment, Harald Føsker tells his story, that his son was killed in a base-jumping accident. The tragedy made him aware of limits, Harald says, and he began to take care with his own life, when driving his car or crossing a street, never anticipating that he would face another life-altering trauma on 22 July 2011.
This trauma began when Føsker’s Oslo office building was destroyed by a bomb. It has gone on, not only for Føsker, whose injuries left him blinded and in a wheelchair, but also for the eight people killed and the hundreds of other injured in the city, as well as the many others assaulted by the killer on the island of Utøya in Tyrifjorden. As Føsker’s interview is integrated over the course of the film with those of Utøya survivors and the parents of a girl, Tamta, the last person shot on the island before police stopped Anders Behring Breivik.
The film contemplates the particular horror of an event at once so public and so private. “A white van drove up,” recalls Håkon Sandbakken, “A man in a police uniform got out, or a man dressed up as a policeman. He grabbed some firearms; he had two, a machine gun and a pistol.” Sandbakken’s youthful face reminds you that the camp was organized by the AUF, Norway’s Labour Party’s youth division. He hid in a toilet, he says, and helped others to hide with him, including Ritah Nansubuga, visiting from Uganda and pregnant at the time. Inside the cramped space, he calmed her so that she might keep breathing despite her panic, reassuring her that her baby would be fine. “I don’t know why I was there,” she says now, marveling still that Sandbakken saw her, made sure she hid with him, and then looked after her. “I can’t forget it,” she says of the many chance events that kept her alive, along with her baby, whom she names Michael, for the angel whom must have been looking after the survivors that day.
Here and again, the film poses the dilemma of chance and fate, how arbitrary survival might or must be, whether the survivors were fortunate that day or in the wrong place at the wrong time. For even if the killer had a rationale in his mind, much as the guards or the commanders in North Korea might have theirs, none of what happened is predictable or reasonable. It can’t make sense, then or now. Tamta’s friend Natia Chketiani remembers their shared excitement about the camp. She also remembers that Tamta, who didn’t swim, yet accompanied her to the shore early that morning so that Natia could swim. Why? she wonders, did Tamta want to leave their room so quickly that morning. “Things just happen,” she says, a non-answer that both serves and doesn’t serve every other question in the film.
Questions plague Tamta’s parents, back in Georgia, who remain despondent and, briefly, here, angry at one another, unable to sort out whether they should have let her go or kept her home. “I must die,” Tamta’s mother Leila remembers her child telling her. “Death will get me, your good wishes won’t prevent it.” You can’t imagine how eerie it must be for Leila to live with that idea in her mind. And yet, here she is, living with it, and beyond that, sitting for an interview, sharing pictures of her daughter and visiting her gravesite with cameras in tow. Here again, the film makes you aware of the simultaneous intimacy and community of death, the knowledge if it, the experience of it, and also its mystery, compounded immeasurably when inflicted so brutally, so randomly, so swiftly.