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AFI Docs Review: “Camp 14—Total Control Zone”

Marc Wiese crafts an astonishing film around a man who survived a North Korean labor camp.

One of the greatest strengths of the documentary format is its ability to personalize an issue, to tackle an abstract concept with characters and stories instead of figures and statistics. To many, the forced labor camps of North Korea are one of these issues—we know they exist, we know horrible things happen there, but we’re so far removed from them that their everyday relevance is diminished.

Camp 14—Total Control Zone seeks to change that. It tells the hidden story of one of these prisons, where barbed-wire fences contain lives that know only hard labor, hunger, and complete domination. The political prisoners here receive no pardons, and their sentences never end. The only way out is death, which can come at any time of any day, sometimes simply via the whim of a guard with an itchy trigger finger.

The film centers around a young man named Shin Dong-hyuk. Born in the prison camp, he grew up knowing nothing of the outside world. The idea of “freedom” was inconceivable—his life was built around starvation and fear, orders and beatings. That is, until he escaped at the age of 23 to China and eventually Seoul, South Korea.

Shin’s story unfolds slowly, as the initial mysteries of how he came to be born in the camp, what happened to his family, and his ultimate escape are revealed piece by piece. Flashbacks to his youth are portrayed through haunting animations—they’re sparse, static, and colorless but for the splash of the blood-red flags fluttering on the execution grounds.

Shin’s interviews are quiet and contemplative, much like the mood of the overall picture. They’re punctuated with long stretches of silence as he stares away, deep in thought. Even when he shows the camera his torture-twisted, deformed arms, he doesn’t raise his voice or show anger. The director, German-born Marc Wiese, is smart to allow his camera to linger on Shin during these tense moments, and the silence speaks volumes.

The stories of Camp 14 that don’t directly involve Shin are just as visceral. Wiese manages to interview two former guards, and their recollections are just as horrific. Both begin the film as simple informants, describing the conditions and rules of the camp. But over the course of their interviews, Wiese leads them into long-buried corners of memory, and his cameras capture them slowly coming to terms with what they’ve done. When one of them solemnly admits, “I never wanted to give an interview like this one,” it’s an astonishing feat.

Camp 14 succeeds by doing what makes documentaries so effective: putting a face on a faceless issue, a story where there are otherwise only statistics. Shin Dong-hyuk is no simple mouthpiece against the evils of the regime, either. He’s a complex young man, confused and overwhelmed by the demands of freedom like money, jobs, and navigating bright Seoul megastores. The revelations of what happened to him and his family in the camp, as well as his final, haunting admission that closes the film, test the truths of the human psyche in the face of inhuman brutality.

Playing June 20, 12:15 PM, at the Newseum and June 23, 10:30 AM at AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

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