Friday, November 11, 2005

Seoul Train - U.S. Documentary on North Korean Refugees

Filmmakers Jim Butterworth and Lisa Sleeth flew to Seoul, where they were met at the airport by their secret contact, "Bernard," and began a two-month journey through the capital city, then traveled to Beijing and to the towns along the North Korea-China border.Bernard provided the secret key to the region's secret Underground Railroad.

What's happening to the refugees is "a catastrophe," Lisa Sleeth says. "If only people knew."

"His intro was as good as gold to the secretive underground folks," says Butterworth. "They trusted us."

"Jim and Bernard clicked instantly," says Sleeth. "He's a 72-year-old Korean - an amazing person - with more energy than you can imagine."

The duo learned about the plight of the North Koreans, who - unlike the South Koreans supported by a roaring economy - live in a country teetering on the brink of insolvency.

Their first stop in China was Beijing, at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. "We went in with cameras rolling," Sleeth says. "They freaked. We had to stop filming before they would talk with us."

The pair had to resort to an off-the-record interview to get information about the U.N.'s activities in the region. It left them unsettled and more committed to the project. "That solidified our opinion that they're totally impotent," she says.

Their next stop as "tourists" was Yanji, China, just north of the North Korean border. It's the area many North Koreans live and work once they illegally cross the border."We got there late at night and in the morning looked across the Tumen River," Sleeth says. "It was the most miserable stark place that's been totally deforested."

The two tall, blond Americans were conspicuous because Yanji is not a location that attracts many tourists. "This was ground zero," Butterworth says. "We can't say too much about the people we met with because we'll blow their cover."

While there they hooked up with another member of the railroad, an American citizen of Korean extraction. Many members of the railroad adopt higher-profiles than what might be expected to help throw off suspicion about their activities.

Every week the Chinese send 200 North Koreans back. How many escape is not known."These activists are not wimps," she says. "They're bad-ass. They are survivors. These activists are confident, strong-willed and risk takers."

While in Yanji, they met with a North Korean refugee who was living with a Chinese man. Through her, they learned that women refugees are often purchased by Chinese men for $800.

They also sent a man inside North Korea with the hidden button camera, but they declined to provide many details. They received other films made inside the country they were able to smuggle into the United States.

Their film Seoul Train includes footage of a family about to escape North Korea as they say their good-byes to family members and receive their forged documents. It also has devastating footage of a hungry toddler picking bits of food from the muddy ground.

To throw off any suspicions, they also created dummy camcorder memory cards filled with typical "tourist" shots they could hand over to the authorities if they were stopped and questioned.

Working from a small apartment [to edit their documetary], Sleeth and Butterworth started what would seem like an endless string of 16-hour days.

Both are quick to point out that what they've done is nothing compared to the ordeals the refugees face each day.

[From an article by Cliff Thompson, Vail Daily]

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