What is your earliest memory? A family holiday, perhaps, or maybe playing in the park? Shin Dong-huyk’s first memory is from when he was four years old. It is of a public execution.
Shin was born in a slave labor camp in North Korea to a mother who was “awarded” to his father in return for working hard. His family was split up and he was raised to give ultimate loyalty to the authorities. At 23, Shin fled. He is the only person to have escaped from this level of internment facility in North Korea and have survived.
Marc Wiese’s harrowing documentary tells the story of Shin’s time in the camp, his escape and his efforts to come to terms with both his past and his free existence. Interspersed are interviews with two North Korean officials, one who worked at Camp 14 and the other who was a secret policeman. Together, these strands depict a system that is brutal beyond imagination.
Sitting on the floor in his spartan new home – the camp accommodation had no furniture and Shin has evidently not been able to get used to beds and chairs – he recounts tragedy upon atrocity: inmates executed in public for “crimes” such as not working hard enough; children dying from beatings; prisoners kept at near-starvation levels; guards shooting prisoners on a whim, and with impunity.
In George Orwell’s 1984, the main character, Winston Smith, resolves that whatever terror the Party inflicts upon him, it can’t win because it can’t break his love for Julia (it does). Shin does not even have the chance to learn about love. Overhearing a family member plotting to abscond, he alerts the authorities. He does not feel sadness at the inevitable outcome, but believes the punishment fits the crime.
Shin’s own testimony – delivered to the camera with painful pauses as he struggles with the horror of his memories – would carry the film alone, but the interviews with the officers highlight another sinister aspect of the regime in North Korea, what Hannah Arendt, in her book on the Adolf Eichmann trial, termed “the banality of evil”.
As they sit in suits and ties, discussing murder and torture, the two men look not like monsters but bureaucrats. They describe the violent acts they committed matter-of-factly, without obvious guilt or emotion. One smuggled out secretly recorded footage – included in the documentary, and among its most unbearable scenes – of a woman being viciously beaten during an interrogation. Presumably, discovery could well have led to his own death, and the two officers, in their own way, have as difficult a transition to make as Shin.
In the end, it is not the violence, fear or desire for freedom (how would he know what freedom was?) that make Shin go. It’s food. Served maize and cabbage soup for every meal, supplemented by the rats the inmates manage to catch, Shin is agog at the stories of a new, previously wealthy, inmate, who describes attending a barbecue and eating chicken, and he resolves to go over the fence. He doesn’t know what happened to his father as a result of his escape; the viewer is left to surmise.
The documentary is understated: given its extreme subject matter, there is no need to ramp up the tension. Some of the most poignant moments depict Shin in his new life as a human rights activist. He’s shown with a group of young Americans organizing his speaking tour. They welcome him warmly, and physically he doesn’t look out of place among them: as you would expect they are an ethnically diverse bunch, all about his age, and he has adopted Western fashions. However, while the other activists are relaxed and enjoying themselves, giving high fives and good-naturedly whooping, Shin seems outside it all. With friendship, fun and camaraderie alien concepts throughout his childhood, his scars run deeper than the burns and bow-leggedness caused by his torture in the facility jail.
The most evocative comment on camp conditions comes when Shin describes his first view of a world outside the prison. After escaping he reaches a local town, where he is astonished to see that people do not have to salute passing officers, can talk freely and happily, and dress in bright-colored clothes that they enjoy wearing. “To me it seemed like heaven,” says Shin. He’s talking about North Korea!
Though it makes disturbing viewing, Camp 14: Total Control Zone is gripping, both for its rare insight into one of the most closed off places on earth, and for the psychological phenomenon of someone who had never known concepts from love and freedom to money encountering them all for the first time. As the film concludes, the abiding image is of Shin, travelling freely in South Korea but dreaming of going “home”. On a train, sunlight throws the shadow of some grating onto him, giving the impression that he has the imprint of bars across his face. In a way, he does.