My North Korean film classes in humanity and creativity

Our Dear Leader told us several times that actors should work on their figures to make a beautiful slim body. That’s the purpose of our training.

by Andy Kozlov

November is a month of grim anniversaries  for many Ukrainians around the world. One of them is commemoration of Holodomor. This week has been set aside to remember and bring awareness, including events in Saskatoon in Canada. In 2003, the Government of Canada recognized the death of 7-10 million people, starved under the Soviet regime led by Joseph Stalin in 1932-33.

My late grandmother (who appears in this film) used to tell me stories of deprivation during those years, when she was growing up in Eastern Ukraine.

The recognition of Holodomor as an act of genocide against Ukrainians still stirs controversy – for instance see this report by RT, a Russian government-endorsed global news network ( the second most-watched foreign news channel in the United States, after BBC News).

A lot has been done in terms of raising awareness of the 80-year-dated atrocities through the medium of film. One example would be Famine-33 (Голод-33), based on the novel The Yellow Prince by Vasyl Barka. Another film to watch to educate yourself on the Holodomor can be accessed here.

Whoever is responsible for this crime against humanity that was not confined to the borders of Soviet Ukrainian of that time, the subject of the 1932-33 famine was suppressed in the Soviet Union for seven decades and few people in the world know about it even now. Each time we talked about those days, my grandmother  never forgot to add that I shouldn’t be talking about what she had told me to people outside the family. By the time she started telling me of her childhood memories, the USSR had been gone for over a decade.

Significantly, a genocide museum in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, that has a display dedicated to other genocides, including the one against Armenians (still fervently debated over in Turkey) and the Herero and Namaqua genocide in present-day Namibia (considered to have been the first genocide of the 20th century), does not mention Holodomor. One could start to think that more films should be made and shown around the world to raise the proverbial awareness. Be certain to hear this from TV screens if you are in Ukraine this weekend.

All these reflections came to mind when I went to a film screening at Goethe Institute in Harare, Zimbabwe to watch Yodok Stories.

I understand the logic of Ukrainian patriots who do their best to let the world know about the events that happened 80 years back (that affected my family in a direct way too). But being asked whether they know of Holodomor-like atrocities taking place now several thousand kilometers to the east, I doubt that many will respond positively. I can assume even fewer have taken any step to raise awareness about more than 200,000 men, women and children facing torture, starvation and murder in North Korea’s concentration camps.

For those working in the Ukrainian media who might protest by saying that North Korea is too far geographically and low on Ukrainian geopolitical agenda, I can draw their attention to The 10 Commandments of Development Communicator and underline that Yodok Stories, a documentary film about the human plight in present-day North Korean concetration camps was directed by our neighbor, a Pole Andrzej Fidyk.

I did not meet Pan Fidyk in Harare, although I got to talk to a Zimbabwean film director, who brought the film to this year’s International Women’s Film Festival and organized three screeings of it at the Goethe Institute here. Stephen T. Chigorimbo of Afriwood, a Zimbabwe-South African film production and distribution company, met Mr. Fidyk during the 2011 Input: Television in the Public Interest event in Seoul back in May.

The third screening of "Yodok Stories" in Harare. On the screen: North Korean defector Jung Sung San, the director of "Yoduk Story" musical, who received numerous anonymous threats during the production

Chigorimbo explained to the five people that attended yesterday’s screening that, despite (or maybe because) of the film’s revelatory character, it is not particularly welcomed in South Korea. The narrator in the film says that many prominent South Korean citizens had no idea that there are concentration camps in the North, and since the whole official discourse in South Korea is about reconciliation, many South Koreans prefer to deny the atrocities not to disturb the negotiation process. This is why, as Chigorimbo observed, the South Korean participants of this year’s Input walked out of the hall during the screening of Fidyk’s film in Seoul.

To draw a comparison to my Ukrainian readers, it would be similar to the Ukrainian diasporans downplaying Holodomor throughout the Soviet decades.

Reflecting on the role of creativity in this whole North Korean drama, I think back to an AlJazeera documentary on Pyongyang University of Cinematic and Dramatic Arts. It took the Doha-based TV network’s Lynn Lee and James Leong several years to access this North Korean creative school (the first foreign crew ever allowed to film there) and follow several days in the lives of future servants of a massive propaganda machine, trained “to give joy to our Dear Leader.”

This film shows smiling young actors living privileged lives and working hard to become professional enough to please Kim Jong-Il. They are being trained to revolutionize the society and look down upon the capitalist creative industries, whose purpose is churning out commercial product, as opposed to showing the ideology of the people, as one of the students explained to AlJazeera.

These young North Korean creatives don’t seem to have any doubts about their lives and their creative calling. What they don’t know, however, is what awaits them if they fail to please the tastes and/or fulfill expectations of North Korean establishment.

What the young bards of Kim Jong-Il’s regime do not know, and what we learn from Yodok Stories is that creative people can easily get stripped of their privileged status and sent to concentration camp for what would seem petite reasons. Some of them after falling in disgrace with the regime, however, may be able to escape to South Korea. See Steppes in Sync‘s article on North Korean propaganda artist who defected to the South and started criticizing the regime using pop art.

Andrzej Fidyk’s film follows some of these refugees who despite fear of persecution and death threats produce a musical about their experiences in the Yodok concentration camp, a Korean version of ”Les Miserables.” Since it was impossible for him to film in North Korea, Fidyk found a way around the problem by organizing a musical with theater director Jung Sung San (himself an ex-prisoner) based on the testimonies of ex-prisoners and guards living in South Korea.

The musical’s depiction of camp life is underscored by violence and brutality. “I can’t believe I’m here. I’m a daughter of the government,” the dancer sings as the guards whip other inmates. Her psychological shock draws on the real-life experience of Kim Young Sun, the show’s 70-year-old choreographer. She also was a dancer at the time of her arrest in 1970.

“When you go to Yodok prison camp, you don’t know the reason because there is no trial,” Kim says. She spent eight and a half years at the camp and later found out she’d been imprisoned for talking too much about the personal lives of North Korean leaders – she used to be close with Kim Jong-Il’s wife.

Musical director Jung says his father was stoned to death in a prison camp, and that motivated him to press ahead with this musical. But it’s been difficult. He says the South Korean government has pressured him not to produce the show. It’s attempting reconciliation with the North and is avoiding publicizing the horrors of the regime. He also received anonymous threats from, who he believes, were North Korean spies.

The musical has been an eye-opener, even for the cast.

“We had not heard about the prison camps,” actor Kim Sung Dong says. “There’s no way for us to find out. The South Korean media is selective about what they tell the public, so there are no opportunities for us to find these things out.”

Choreographer Kim Young Sun says she doesn’t understand why the world doesn’t seem to care.

“Why is it that in North Korea there is a disaster going on, and no one knows about it? Through this art, I want people to know the reality of these prison camps. And the reality of North Korea’s prison camps is that they are worse than Auschwitz.”

The account of the Polish film director is also interesting if one wants to understand better the role of creativity in promoting humanitarian cause. Fidyk explains, “In 1988 I made the film Defilada (The Parade), [which depicts the mass parades choreographed to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the regime] inside North Korea. Since then, all the things concerning this super totalitarian country have been very close to me. For quite some time I had thought about how to present a North Korean concentration camp in a documentary film since, for obvious reasons, you can’t just go in there with a camera. Naturally the North Korean regime did not want us to make this project, so both cast and crew of the performance received death threats, and we feared people would somehow be hurt, that the stage would be bombed or that somebody’s family would be sent to the camps.

However, the North Korean defectors were extremely determined to continue and carry through with our project, so we had no choice but to do the same. Another thing was that all the stories told about the horrible things happening in camps in North Korea. That affected me personally very much and I did not really take it well. I knew that I had to make a good and interesting movie from the things that gave me nightmares at night. That was definitely the biggest challenge of making this film.”

To some extent, one could say that the musical’s choreographer Kim Young Sun and its director  Jung Sung San have, in the end, found a way to apply their creativity to really serve the people of North Korea. But in order to achieve this, they had to live through the moments of humiliation and oblivion, being confined in a concentration camp with all its daily atrocities.

Around 7,000 North Koreans managed to escape their country and make it to South Korea.

Director Andrzej Fidyk

The overwhelming power of the images in the films that we looked at is in their relevance to today. Their North Korean protagonists are our contemporaries. Their compatriots still live in isolation, undergoing brainwashing and torture, while the outer world praises itself for the developments in the human rights field.

Yes, the world needs to be reminded about the atrocities of the past, but, like in the Ukrainian case, we, need to begin rethinking our current national communication strategies aimed at raising awareness of individual crimes against humanity, and syncing these strategies to obtain more effective international resonance and consequent action. We need more Andrzej Fidyks, who are able to transcend their national creative discourses and ease the miserable condition of other, however distant, peoples – that’s if we really mean our talk about the inter-connected-world.

You can write to Andy Kozlov on


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