If Shin Dong-Huyk’s life was a work of fiction, it would be practically unbelievable.
Born in a North Korean forced-labor camp 80 kilometers (49 miles) from Pyongyang, Shin had no idea of the world beyond the barbed-wire fences nor any hope of release. Indoctrinated from birth, he reported to the guards that he’d overheard his brother and mother discussing an escape when he was 14. Guilty by association, he was imprisoned for seven months, tortured with fire and then released just in time to attend their public executions.
“It’s like in a Shakespeare drama,” filmmaker Marc Wiese said of the central story in his new documentary “Camp 14: Total Control Zone,” being shown this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. “It’s shocking.”
Built around a series of exclusive interviews filmed in Seoul, where Shin, 28, now lives after escaping the camp, the documentary captures a young man’s painful attempt to look back. At a time of new leadership in Pyongyang and speculation about a thaw in the hard-line communist regime, “Camp 14” is a reminder about how brutal the North Korean system remains.
Shin’s revelations stand in contrast to his blank stares and numb delivery. He didn’t shed a tear when his mother was executed because, he recalls, “I hadn’t learned that you’re supposed to cry when your mother is executed.” And then without betraying any emotion, he adds, “Thinking about it now, I can’t be certain they really wanted to escape.”
To tell Shin’s story, Wiese intermingles animated recreations, scenes of modern Seoul and a grainy film that he said shows a North Korean prison guard beating a woman over the head so hard with a stick that it breaks.
The documentary also includes interviews with two former high-ranking officers whose stories are as chilling as Shin’s. One of the men, Kwon Hyuk, a former commander in the North Korean gulag, describes without emotion how he could force any prisoner to do anything he wanted under the threat of death.
“The decision whether to kill them or let them live was completely up to me,” said Kwon, who now has a young son and earns his living as a construction worker in South Korea.
Shin’s experience of the outside world may be even more shocking than his memories of life inside. Shin tells Wiese that he finds it difficult to fit into modern society, and then adds that he misses his life in Camp 14 and wants to return.
When Wiese heard him say that during filming, he said he was so shocked that he asked Shin several times if he had misspoken.
“For two weeks, in hours and hours and hours of interviews, he told me about this hell” in the camp, Wiese said yesterday in an interview at a Toronto hotel. “And then he said he wanted to go back into this hell?”
As perverse as it first sounded, Wiese said he began to understand what Shin meant.
“I see the loneliness he had to face” on his own in South Korea, Wiese said of Shin’s life. “He’s unable to manage that.”
Wiese is no stranger to violence in the topics he’s covered in previous documentaries.
His 2004 film “Radovan Karadzic: Most Wanted?” chronicled the foot-dragging in the hunt for indicted Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic, for which he said he interviewed other thugs from the war in Bosnia. Unlike them and other killers he said he’s interviewed, Wiese was shocked by the way the North Korean officers he interviewed for “Camp 14” felt no remorse or the need to make excuses for what they did.
“These guys were coming and saying, ‘I saw a woman, I raped her,’” Wiese said in the interview. “‘If she refused, I killed her. If she got pregnant, we killed her.’”
Wiese, who is from Germany, said he’s curious to see how South Korean audiences react when the film is shown at a Seoul film festival later this year. Many South Koreans are fed up with the story of North Korean defectors, he said, because they don’t want to see the Koreas reunify, and cite the heavy cost of Germany’s reunification as an argument against it.
Wiese said he hopes his film will keep the topic of North Korea alive in public discourse. The issues are often ignored even though there are 200,000 North Koreans locked up in labor camps that can clearly be seen by anyone at home using the Google Maps web application, he said.
“Can you imagine seeing Auschwitz live on a computer?” Wiese said.
(The film is scheduled to screen tonight at 9 p.m. and again on Sept. 16 at 9:30 a.m. at the Toronto International Film Festival. For more on the program, go to tiff.net/thefestival.)