TIFF 2012: Camp 14: Total Control Zone – Documentary Review

By September 13, 2012 2 Comments

Director: Marc Wiese
Starring: Shin Dong-Huyk
Runtime: 104 minutes
TIFF 2012 Programme: TIFF Docs

We are all guilty of taking certain things for granted, be it technology, entertainment, friends, family, or even shelter and food. On a more consequential scale, some of us take our freedom of expression and government for granted. While watching the US gear up for another presidential election, with both major parties televising conventions, it’s unsurprising that many people take an avid interest and get involved in social conversation. Without a doubt, their decision at the polling booth will dictate the direction of domestic and foreign policy a country takes for the next 6 years. The everyday populace determines this, and it’s hard to imagine that in this day and age, there are countries still run under the ruling thumb of a dictator. Director Marc Wiese’s Camp 14: Total Control Zone establishes North Korea as a bastion of political and social oppression that imprisons and punishes anyone opposing the status quo.

Wiese’s feature is propelled by Shin Dong-Huyk, who was born inside one of these prison labor camps. Until his escape at 23 years of age, he had no exposure to the outside world and simply accepted conditions within the camp as universal. Even as you read this article, within these camps, dissent and insubordination are met with death. Families are separated, conditions akin to slavery are commonplace and the human soul is crippled. All inmates abide by a list of rules, with each consequence of insubordination met with an abrupt affix: ‘will be shot immediately’.

In lengthy interviews, Shin describes a childhood of labor and famine, devoid of human affection. While many of us his age would identify college admission or a first date as memorable events, Shin’s are far more dire: a public execution, familial betrayal and torture. The contrast between his two lives are stunning. Now, he is an avid activist and travels throughout the US and Asia, campaigning for LINK (Liberty in North Korea), gives speeches and is harangued by reporters at every turn. He has slowly picked up some English and is clothed in more than dirty rags. Yet, remnants of his old life are still present in his mannerisms. While the Seoul apartment he lives in is a luxury compared to his previous home, it is markedly spartan by regular standards. Although, a prominent figure in humanitarian circles, he still regards people with humility and timidity. This is also apparent in his interviews, where he delivers a narrative without overstating facts or attempting to be dramatic. It is heartbreaking to watch him struggle and second guess actions he committed when he lacked the understanding of social responsibility.

The documentary’s credibility is elevated by statements from two former members of North Korea’s oppressive system: Hyuk Kwon, an ex-commander of the guards at camp 22, and Oh Yangnam, a ex-secret policeman. Their accounts of nighttime kidnappings, torture, rape and abuse of prisoners are sometimes delivered in such a chillingly nonchalant manner that one could easily mistake them for two businessmen commenting on the economy. They provide the only real footage from within the camp, one shot of laborers going about their work and the other of a physical interrogation. These interviews and camera footage are complemented by Ali Soozandeh’s animation, which gives life to Shin’s narrative and key anecdotes of life in camp 14. He opts for a gray palette that captures the stark outlook of inmates, and scenes are devoid of color except for the bright red of the North Korean flag and star on guard uniforms. This bleak outlook adds considerable emotional weight to Camp 14’s message.

There are times where the pace of the documentary stutters; laden pauses during interviews that convey the difficulty of digging up traumatic memories. Although, these are genuine moments, they take up valuable time that could be better spent highlighting more facts about the regime and the action, or inaction, of the international community.

Ultimately, Shin’s escape is the standout component, a testament to the power of human will. He was motivated to escape by the world related to him by an inmate, and the thirst to discover the unknown, to escape oppression and the simple dream of eating cooked meat. He has deformed arms, scarred legs and will be deprived of something as normal as wearing shorts. Yet, according to him he was never robbed of innocence, a simple way of life devoid of consumerism.  He wishes for a liberated North Korea, to return home and cultivate the land, to live freely in the land he was born in. It’s a dream worth fighting for, and every inmate in every camp deserves that exact opportunity.

Photo Credit: Toronto International Film Festival


  • Reviewerguest 2013 says:

    If you watch the 20 minutes or so again, you might not come to the conclusion that he wants to return to his home country ‘to live a free life’. Probably one of the more revealing aspects of the documentary, and one that shouldn’t escape mention.

  • Reviewerguest 2013 says:

    * ‘last 20 minutes’ rather

Leave a Reply