Monday, March 25, 2013

HRWFF- Camp 14 Total Control Zone

There are currently over 200,000 people in labour camps in North Korea. Citizens can end up in a labour camp for any number of reasons; violent acts, misdemeanour offences or for being opposed to the government. Some unfortunate prisoners end up in a camp for as minor a mistake as rolling a cigarette with a newspaper that happened to contain the image of the President.

The main character in Camp 14 total Control Zone did not end up in a camp through any of these ways.  He was born there a son of two political prisoners who were wed by the guards.  His mother was a present to his father for good behavior. No one is released from Camp 14 the only way out is death or escape.

In his opening conversation Shin Dong-hyuk discusses the nightmares that he has every night due to his ordeal at Camp 14.  He is tired and exhausted all of the time and aims to rest as much as possible without thoughts as he does not want to think about anything.  In the past he refused to do an interview on his time at the camp but now has finally decided to do so.  He describes his first memory of the camp. He was 4 years old and went with his mother to see a public execution of another prisoner. Every prisoners had to attend a view the public executions the viewing was mandatory unless a prisoner is working in the mine. They took place in a big open area the victim was blindfolded and tied to a pole. The execution was always proceeded by a declaration that these prisoners did not work hard or follow orders and that is why they have to be punished.  The prisoner was shot and then usually slumped forward. The whole prison was surrounded by barbed wire fence all the way up to the mountains. The guards area was also surrounded by barbed wire fence within the complex.  Shin recounted that he lived in a one room home with his mother and had no furniture forcing them to sleep on the floor. In the winter it became so cold that they would put on all of the clothes they could find.

The interview with Shin in his apartment in Seoul is shot mainly with a fixed mid range camera. Shin sits on some steps his body leaning to the right.  He speaks in hushed tones and looks down and to the left or away from the interviewer. He pauses often and the gaps between dialogue go on for a longer than normal length of time.  Shin is also prone to blinking slowly during these pauses. His pose is a powerful image that shows a person that has endued a lifetime of suffering that has broken him both physically and psychologically. The room is shot mainly using natural light. The picture has a grainy texture which is appropriate for the bleak nature of the subject matter. Most of the outside shots are framed using a fixed camera. These shots are used for city views of Seoul with the occasional close up on Shin of he is in the frame.

The piece skips between the hustle of everyday Seoul and Shin's solitary existence in his apartment with minimal furniture that has an eerier resemblance to the one room home that he lived in for so long at the prison.

The flashbacks to the labour camp are all presented in understated black and white animation . The only bit of colour is the bright red North Korea flag. Ali Soozandeh animation is exceptional and very detailed of the prisoners and their surroundings.  The opening shot of the labourers working in the mine with their pick axes shows Adults working alongside little children. The main job of the children was to push out the wagons that were loaded with coal by the adults. The children went to work in the mine at age 6 the same age as when they started school.

Director Mark Weise interviewed two former North Korea officers for the film.  Young- Nam a former officer of the secret police service's Ministry of Internal Security and Kwon Huyk an ex commander of the guards from Camp 22.  Huyn speaks to how easy it is to be arrested for as little as saying the names of the leaders Kim Il-Sung and King Jong Il without referring to either as Tongji comrade.  Huyk divulged that he could do whatever he wanted to the prisoners. They could not defend themselves even if they were being beaten.  It was his choice to kill any prisoner for any offence. Huyk explained how the two main forms of torture were water and fire and how he had a giant aquarium at his disposal to use on prisoners and play on the most basic fear of drowning or suffocation.

Young Nam revealed how arrests were always at night. Entire families were brought to a camp as political prisoners then split apart and never allowed to be together again. He also remarked how torture was normal in the political prison camps and even when a suspect was initially arrested. He discussed the different types of rewards that were given to the guards after the execution of a regular prisoner.

Weise uses several juxtaposed shots in the piece. The introductory shots of the two officers is cleverly edited centring on their mobile phones.  Weise shoots Shin shopping in a modern Seoul mall and supermarket with flat screen T.V.'s and an abundance of food in every isle then flips back to animation of a food line as Shin describes the lack of foot in the camp. All they had was maze and Chinese cabbage soup. There was no meat unless they happened to catch a rat which they would eat bones and all. If you were caught hoarding food you were punished which more than likely meant you would be shot. The main way to keep the prisoners in line was the threat of execution not only if you disobeyed the rules but if you saw someone else do so and did not report the offence.  The main other  offences were attempting to escape, contact outside of work between men and women without permission or not being remorseful about your mistakes.

The film also follows Donghyuk current activities as he attends human rights events in Geneva, Seattle and Los Angeles to tell his stories from his life in the camp on behalf of the human rights organization LINK.

Shin gives an interesting theory of how he was a prisoner in south Korea until 2005 but did not have to think about money and had a pure heart while in the West people have to think about money all the time and are prisoners to their reliance on and constant pursuit of money.  Camp 14 Total Control Zone is a horrific account of life in a labour camp for political prisoners. It is not an easy watch but one that I highly recommend.

Camp 14: Total Control Zone | Mark Weise | Germany / South Korea | 2012 | 104 Minutes.

*** 1/2 out of 4.

2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival. 

North Korea , Labour Camp, Prisoner, Torture , LINK, Speaking tour.

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