The 2023 Sundance Film Festival opened with the surprise announcement of a new documentary. However, Doug Liman’s Brett Kavanaugh-themed “Justice” wasn’t the only non-fiction exposé that secretly made its way to Park City. Until it premiered at the festival January 21, the festival site billed U.S. Documentary Competition selection “Beyond Utopia” as a look at “various individuals as they attempt to flee one of the most oppressive places on Earth,” but didn’t specify the location.
The location in question is North Korea, and the movie delivers an eye-opening look at defectors who cross its Chinese border. Sources tell IndieWire that Sundance refused to name North Korea in its official description until after the premiere. That decision came out of concern that the movie could lead to security threats from the country, not unlike the Sony hack that destabilized the studio ahead of 2014 satire “The Interview.”
Sundance made a similar call last year when it made a late-festival announcement for “Navalny,” the acclaimed documentary about the imprisoned Russian defector. In the case of “Beyond Utopia,” some sources associated with the project expressed frustration with the redacted description and described it as an overreaction. Directed by Madeleine Gavin (“City of Joy”), “Beyond Utopia” counts among its producers former CIA officer and North Korea expert Sue Mi Terry, one of the most vocal activists in the efforts to support defectors in getting out of the country.
At the festival, Terry told IndieWire that unlike “The Interview,” documentaries about the terror of living under the grip of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un don’t bother him. “He has no problem with it because it makes him look powerful,” she said. “The Sony hack was a truly unusual one-off because of the nature of it. It was a huge movie in which they literally blew up Kim Jong-un. It was a very personal and humiliating to him. I’m not worried about this documentary.”
Gavin agreed. “This is a normal criticism of what’s going on that he deals with every day,” she said.
A festival rep declined comment, but after the film’s premiere the country appeared in the summary. It was there that the Roh family, North Korean refugees whose dramatic escape is documented in the movie, joined director Gavin for an emotional reunion on stage. The director told IndieWire that it was the first time they had watched any movie in a theater due to the absence of such opportunities in North Korea.
“As soon as they realize what they don’t have, they can never not know what they don’t have,” Gavin said. However, she said that the grandmother of the group still distrusted her surroundings due to the lingering effects of propaganda. “She was trying to balance her own experience with what she’s been told her whole life, which is that Americans are horrible people trying to kill her,” Gavin said.
Gavin and Terry said they believed the Roh family were among North Korea’s last refugees in 2019. As the movie explains, the country’s decision to close its border to China shortly after the coronavirus outbreak in early 2020 made it impossible for other defectors to make the trip.
“It hurt their country so much more than sanctions ever could have,” Terry said. “Ninety percent of their trade is with China, so once they closed the border, it got really bad there. But the flip side is that this is why the defectors want to leave North Korea.” She said the situation was reminiscent of the drought in the ’90s that killed millions of North Koreans and made them more aware that the propaganda projecting national strength was actually a lie.
“This is a crappy country,” she said. “As long as the elite support them, millions of people can perish. Another thing is that this information blockade — this regime myth — allows it to survive. People just don’t know anything else.”
In the movie, the grandmother struggles to say a negative word about Kim Jong-un for fear that she could be punished, and the filmmakers said the woman still didn’t fully trust Americans — even as she enchanted them. “The monopoly on information is the way the regime holds onto power,” Kim said.
Many defectors first learn the truth of their conditions through movies and TV shows from South Korea smuggled into the other country on DVDs and USB drives. “Almost every defector has told me how they found out they were being lied to was by watching K-dramas,” said Terry. “They’re like, ‘Wow, the cafes look great, the guys look hot, they’re driving really fancy cars. What’s going on?’”
Veteran documentary sales company Submarine reps “Beyond Utopia.” Among those at the premiere were executives from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground, which has an exclusive distribution deal with Netflix, and the film received a four-minute standing ovation at the end of its first screening. However its sales prospects work out, Pastor Kim and Lee, two of the movie’s subjects, say they plan to get more people out of the country by April.
“It’s a slow process,” Terry said. She wants to instigate change from within North Korea, akin to Tunisia’s Arab Spring — but acknowledged the daunting task at hand. “For that to happen in Tunisia, they needed the internet, they needed Twitter,” she said. “[North Koreans] don’t have a way to mobilize. Security services are embedded everywhere. They have a long way to go.”
For now, “Beyond Utopia” shows a glimmer of hope as it tracks not only the flight from the country but also the aftermath as the family initially resettles in Thailand and must come to grips with a whole new world. “The footage we have from Laos, every piece of it is so amazing,” Gavin said. “You’re witnessing people grappling with what they knew in real time.”
Gavin said her subjects had no issue with capturing their escape despite the risks at hand. “They were facing death if they stayed behind,” she said. “Their concern wasn’t about being filmed. It was about survival — and getting out.”
Additional reporting by Brian Welk.