Thursday, February 21, 2013

Camp 14: Total Control Zone (2012)

About halfway through Camp 14: Total Control Zone, its subject, 30-year-old Shin Dong-hyuk, shows us his arms. They look hyper-extended at the elbow joints, as though they’re being bent backwards. This is how they look at rest. His whole body bears the effects of torture, he tells us; but this is the only example he’ll offer to the camera.

Shin is a reticent man. He is also famous: one of the only people known to have been born and raised in a North Korean concentration camp, and the only person known to have escaped one alive. He speaks publicly about his experiences, seemingly with ease. But before director Marc Wiese, alone, in his home, he is awkward. He does not like to reminisce. He pauses, staring into the middle distance, and Wiese’s camera stays on him: silent, still, waiting.

Shin’s story is remarkable, and horrifying. By nationality North Korean, he knows little of daily life in his home country, having been born there to two prisoners and raised in a prison environment from which there was intended to be no escape. Working in an onsite factory from a young age; fed a daily, unvarying diet of maize and Chinese cabbage soup; and isolated even by North Korean standards, his was an existence defined by want, but limited by low expectations.

Shin’s only purpose was to work and obey. The guards in Camp 14 acted with impunity; they were authorized to torture or even kill the prisoners as they saw fit. Beatings and rape were common. Perhaps most frighteningly, one of the film’s commentators tells us, it doesn’t take much for a citizen to be shipped to one of these camps. Shin was one of the few in Camp 14 who had no memories of a better life.

Wiese also interviews a former guard and a former secret policeman, both defectors, just like Shin. They appear to be average men, plain-spoken and polite. They speak openly about the atrocities committed in these camps, though rarely about those they participated in themselves. They seem bewildered at times. They look back and see the cruelty of the system, and the depths to which the guards sunk, and deem it insane. They understand what motivated guards and prisoners to act as they did; but cannot understand how rational men could sustain it.

Though almost no footage exists of life inside one of these camps, there does exist footage of a prisoner being beaten, and we see some of it in the film. A woman kneels on the floor, blindfolded. A guard berates her, then strikes her with a long wooden stick. The stick breaks in two against her skull. She lies on the floor, moaning, as he grinds his boot into her face. Such abuse is only possible when obtaining information becomes secondary to obliterating a person’s humanity. It is sociopathic.

Shin describes similar situations inside the camp, and Wiese turns to animators to depict them. These scenes are mostly still drawings, grey and somber, with a single figure in motion. I found this stillness effective, not because it brings us closer to the events, but because it distances us from them. The whole documentary has the feel of an official record—a reading into evidence—and depicting the events in a more realistic way, through re-enactment, for example, could have been sensationalistic.

The details of Shin’s escape are harrowing and remarkable, and I’ll leave it to him to tell them. More interesting, perhaps, and certainly more grim, are the circumstances that led to it. The world in which Shin matured was one in which, he explains, no true familial bonds could be formed. He measured his family members’ worth not by how they treated him, but by their obedience to the rules. Which made him like the guards, in a way. It also made betraying them easy.

You wonder what permanent damage an upbringing like must cause. When Shin escaped, he had no concept of money, had never tasted anything but soup and vermin, had never slept in a bed… that he can integrate into normal society at all is remarkable. But so much of this part of the story is missing from the film. Does Shin have a social life? We almost always see him alone. When we see him with other people, it is in the context of events—he is an invited speaker, an honoured guest, valued for the tale he has to tell. Ironically, the film treats him much the same.

I confess that I wanted to know more. Not about Shin’s horrible experiences—the description of which makes the film’s point and then some—but about Shin, today. We do get a little: like his reflections on the society in which he lives, and his longing for simpler times. But we don't see very much. This isn’t the purpose of Camp 14: Total Control Zone, I realize; but had we more of a glimpse into the struggles this man faces now, it might have allowed us further insight into what other victims of abuse must live with. It would have also injected energy into the film, which can feel static and flat at times, despite its subject matter.

Still, there are the facts: The camps are still operating. They hold more than 200,000 inmates, most of whom do not live past age 45. Shin is still the only one of them who has gotten away. The North Korean regime is commonly mocked. After seeing this doc, I’m done laughing.

Where to see Camp 14: Total Control Zone:
Camp 14: Total Control Zone screens on Wednesday, February 27, at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox; part of the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

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