Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Camp 14: Total Control Zone (Film, 2012) notes

Notes taken as I viewed Camp 14: Total Control Zone.

The movie's official page.

The page for the documentary.

I mentioned at the end of the post on Escape from Camp 14 about this documentary but I wanted to see it, too.

Opens with Shin expressing his reluctance, despite numerous requests, to talk about his experience. Consistent with Harden’s observation that Shin wasn’t comfortable with new surroundings but more importantly not comfortable with himself. Shin notes that although his nightmares have reduced in frequency he still has them.

“The outside world was inconceivable to me. I had never seen the world on the other side of the fence. I suspected that there was a country of North Korea and a bigger world, and I thought that world would be exactly like the labour camp. I couldn’t conceive of anything else.” The ‘funny’ thing is that the world he came from is inconceivable to us.

An irritant for me…people not introduced. You can figure out one used to be a camp guard in North Korea (thanks to him saying so) and the other one…an official in the camp system? I realize they may not want their name used or something but it’s a major flaw in the film not telling you what their role was in the prison system.

Likewise certain footage shown without any context given. How recent is it? What work are we looking at in the camps? Frustrating. The footage sometimes speaks for itself, sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes the visuals/ footage add a lot. You get to see the barrenness, the bleakness and the number of guards. Or Shin looking at the DMZ as he looks through the barricades, still referring to North Korea as his home.

Shin on the investigators that interrogated him for a month after he first arrived in South Korea: “These investigators are experts. You can’t tell them any lies. They are perfectly informed. If I’d know about a thumb, they’d know what was under its nails.”

There’s an irony of watching him shop in some sort of mega mart (like a Costco) with so much food…a major reason for his decision to escape. He is choosing what food he wants to buy, while in the prison camp it was no disgrace to lick soup off the floor.

Animated reenactments of prison life, similar to the line drawings provided with the pictures in the book by Blaine Harden. (The line drawings are supposedly similar to the 2007 book Shin had published in South Korea.) How effective is the animation? It’s more powerful to watch Shin struggle with the words and his memory. Does Shin ever age in the animation? It doesn’t look like it at times.

Biggest impact from the book was Shin’s story and what he had to do to survive…things he was ashamed of, although the shame came only after his escape when he had the luxury (and conscience) to do so. Reminds me of Primo Levi’s comment that the prisoners didn’t feel like criminals because of the absence of all morality in the Lager system.

Also impactful are the comments from the two unnamed people (prison guard and official?) about their actions, like taking women prisoners to their quarters for sex or watching a pregnant woman strung up and beat to death with a whip.

Footage of Shin speaking in front of a conference…very different from his opening statement that he wasn’t ready to tell his story yet. At the same time I got an uneasy feeling that Shin is being…used isn’t the right word, but it’s not far from how it feels. I realize the good intentions but it still feels like he is being manipulated.

Footage of Shin talking in front of a church… much more natural, without a script… similar to the last part of Harden’s book, which gives the reader hope for Shin’s future. This doesn’t feel manipulative, like he *wants* to be doing this. He tells the story of the girl caught with food in her pocket In this talk he goes into more detail on the girl’s beating…unfathomable. Harden had commented on Shin’s comment that he felt nothing in response to the girl’s death from the beating. His comments in the movie adds to what they felt and are even more chilling: “But we believed that this was all right. It was the lawful punishment for theft. Our parents were guilty and we had to suffer for their crimes, too. We didn’t feel sorry for her.”

Shin goes into detail on his brother’s and mother’s plan for escape. Food is such a major factor…he admits that maybe the fact his mother had rice and fixed it for his brother (and never for him) that he turned them in. “I did what my instinct and the rules required. I reported their plan.”

Obviously reporting on his family members is still a sensitive subject. His hesitancy in talking about it…the long pauses. “But it’s all over now. I had to go through a tough time because of this incident. I was very resentful towards my mother and brother at the time. But I try not to think like that any more, because I also got my father into trouble when I fled myself. I think I need a break. I can’t manage any more.” Note the attempt to change the way he thinks. As well as how he is certain, even though he wasn’t there to see it, that he got his father into the same type of trouble. Especially since he visited him the night before his escape (from the book). It’s interesting to note his trouble in making eye contact with the interviewer during this section.

Shin initially says that if someone else reported the attempt it wouldn’t have been so bad for him and his father. He immediately contradicts himself, saying he probably wouldn’t have survived for standing by during their escape talk and would have been executed as well. He also notes, and this seems to haunt him, that’s he’s not sure they would have actually gone through on their escape plan. At the end of this section Shin makes a moving plea: “Please translate what I’ve said.” In watching him talk about his role in their execution it’s easy to understand why he lied about it (by omission) for so long. The long pauses, while the camera still focuses on Shin, highlights his difficulty in talking about it.

Shin also finds it difficult to answer questions about his torture, deferring the questions at times. “Although many years have passed, I don’t want to remember these experiences anymore.” Beatings were standard. He shows his bent, deformed arms (which had been straight before he was tortured). Shin talks about the deformity of his legs and his body. His body causes him shame and anger. Obviously stirs deep emotions when talking or even just thinking about it. His simple observation that he can’t wear shorts because of his scars and deformity reveals deep emotions. (The animation is misleading if I remember correctly—there was no outside light in the underground prison.)

Acknowledges the importance of his contact with his underground cellmate (Kim Jin Myung, or “Uncle”), who provided affection and emotional support in addition to taking care of his physical needs. The physical care allowed Shin to survive. The emotional support gave him a reason to survive.

It obviously moves him to talk about his mother’s and brother’s public execution, but only now that he lives in a different world. “I felt nothing when they were killed” when it happened. It’s probably more correct to say he felt no compassion because he then says he did feel anger because of the torture he had to suffer. He has no idea how his father reacted. Then Shin says he did feel sick…another little difference but not necessarily inconsistent.

“I hadn’t learned that you’re supposed to cry when your mother is executed. All I had learned is that you have to report disobedience.”

In the interview with the prison official (?): “I didn’t feel in the slightest bit guilty, even though I killed so often there. After the execution of a regular criminal, we were given special rations: a bit of meat and two bottles of alcohol. “ It was the right thing to do to protect the country. Probably the most disturbing part of this interview (and possibly the whole movie) was when he said that he didn’t feel like doing the work so he would threaten a group of prisoners, saying they needed to kill someone in their group or he would kill all of them. The prisoners would always beat to death one of their own.

Shin recalls talking withPark Yong Chul, the person he was supposed to report on (but didn’t.) in the textile factory. Shin loved Park’s stories about food.
“I wanted to check whether the world he [Park] told me about really existed.”
Shin obviously very moved in talking about Park’s death on the electric fence, saying he wished Park had survived and escaped, too.

After escape: “The first morning in freedom was a big shock. The picture of North Korea that I saw that morning was a big shock for me. I saw people running around freely, talking and laughing. They weren’t under surveillance. … It felt to me like this world was heaven.” North Korea appeared free to Shin.

Very little on his trip north and then west into China.

“What I find extremely regrettable is that I didn’t even smile once at my father before running away. [long pause] Maybe he was shot for my escape. But if he wasn’t, how would he be treated?”

Interviewing former guard (?) and asking him if he has told his children what he did in North Korea. He says he will with his youngest boy when he’s old enough to understand. So are there other children? Do they know? Not asked and so not answered.

It’s interesting to see how troubled the former prison workers are, too. In the interview with the former prison official or guard (?), he shows trepidation about a possibly reunified Korea and possibly meeting people he has tortured. He shows guilt and remorse over what he did and it clearly shakes him even talking about it. “A human life in the camp was worth the same as that of a fly. Nobody ever told me I was wrong for shooting someone. I was praised for it. Everything’s like that in the penal camp for political prisoners. I never wanted to give an interview like this one.”
“After this interview I’ll never talk about my time in the camp again.”

After everything Shin has described about his life in the camp, Shin’s stated desire to return to the location of Camp 14 when the country is free comes as a shock. He wants to be a free man and farm there, living off his own work. He’s clearly uncomfortable with South Korea, saying everything there revolves around money. He also notes the high number of suicides in South Korea, where plenty of food and clothes are available, while suicide was rare in the prison camp.

Shin states, “In the camp I had a pure heart.” Considering all he did and saw, that’s quite a statement. He misses the innocence he feels he had in prison (although he doesn’t miss many other things from that time). “I miss my innocent heart.” (said several times)

The film focuses mostly on Shin’s life in the camp (so following its title). There is only a little about his escape and even less about his life in South Korea.

Random notes:
  • While at a computer Shin uses Google Earth to focus in on Camp 14.
  • Shin: “I tell stories like an old woman.”

There are small discrepancies between the movie and the book, such as the six-year-old girl beaten to death…was it kernels of corn or grains of wheat? Or Shin reporting on his brother and mother to a teacher vs. a guard. None of the discrepancies undermine the overall story, and some of it may be a matter of translation (Shin may have used general terms, for example). Still there are some differences.

The biggest difference from Harden’s book is that there is rarely any context given, but a large part of that comes from the focus of the movie being on the life in prison camp, while the additional context mostly came during the escape and life outside of North Korea.

Not accurate to say the movie is based on the book. Better to say the book and the movie are based on the same subject, emphasizing and covering different aspects of it.

My biggest complaint with the movie is how most of the footage other than Shin is used. There is no description of who else is being interviewed…one man was clearly a guard but the other man seemed to have been higher up. Was he an official at a camp? But then he also mentions having been a guard. The clips using footage from camps and other North Korean areas isn’t explained, either. Maybe I’m asking too much here, but I want to know where these came from, what exactly they are showing, etc.

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