The 2023 Sundance Film Festival kicked off with the announcement of a new non-fiction film. Nonetheless, Doug Liman's Brett Kavanaugh-themed "Justice" was the only non-fiction film to make it's way to Park City. "Beyond Utopia," according to the festival's website, was a "a look at diverse individuals as they attempt to flee one of the most oppressive places on Earth."
The film's location is North Korea, and sources say the organization refused to include North Korea in its official description until after the premiere. That decision was made due to fears that the film might impose security threats from the country, comparable to the Sony intrusion that destabilized the studio in the 2014 comedy "The Interview."
Sundance made a similar decision last year when it announced a late-festival interview for "Navalny," the well-known documentary on the imprisoned Russian defector, and described it as an overreaction. Sue Mi Terry is one of the most vocal activists who campaigned to get out of the country.
Terry told IndieWire that unlike "The Interview," documentaryaries on North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un don't bother him. "He has no problem with it because it makes him appear powerful," she said. "The Sony hack was a very unusual one-off because of the nature of it. It was a very personal and humiliating experience to him. I'm not concerned about this documentary."
Gavin agreed. "This is a standard criticism of what's going on that he deals with every day," she said.
A festival representative declined to comment, but after the film's premiere the country appeared in the summary. There the Roh family, North Korean refugees whose dramatic escape is documented in the film, joined director Gavin for an emotional reunion on stage. Due to the absence of such opportunities in North Korea, the director told IndieWire that it was the first time they had seen any film in a theater.
"They can never be certain what they don't have," Gavin said. However, she said she still distrusted her surroundings due to the persistent effects of propaganda. "She was trying to reconcile her own experience with what she's been taught throughout her life, which is that Americans are horrible people trying to murder her."
Yeongbok Woo, Sunok Park, Seungeun Kim, Madeleine Gavin, Jinhae Ro, Jinpyeong Ro, and Soyeon Lee will perform at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, "Beyond Utopia."
The Roh family, according to Gavin and Terry, were among North Korea's last refugees in 2019. As the film demonstrates, the country's decision to close its border to China shortly after the coronavirus epidemic in early 2020 made it impossible for other defectors to travel the trip.
Terry said the situation was similar to the one in the 1990s that killed millions of North Koreans and made them aware that government propaganda was a lie.
"This is a bleak country," she said. "Millions of people can perish as long as the elite support them." Another thing is that this information blockade — this regime myth — allows it to survive. People simply don't know anything else.
The grandmother tries to avoid a negative word about Kim Jong-un in the film because she fears she might be punished, and the filmmakers said she didn't fully trust Americans despite her delight in them. "The regime's insistence on information is the way it holds power."
Many defectors first discover the truth about their conditions through movies and TV programs from South Korea that were smuggled into the other country via DVDs and USB drives. "Almost every defector has told me how they discovered they were being lied to was by watching K-dramas," said Terry.
"Beyond Utopia," a veteran documentary sales company, featured prominent guests at the premiere. Higher Ground, a Netflix exclusive distribution agreement, received a four-minute standing ovation at the end of its first screening, and the film's subjects said they intend to expat more people into the country by April.
Terry acknowledged that the process is a lengthy one. She wants to catalyze change from within North Korea, as well as Tunisia's Arab Spring. "For that to happen in Tunisia, they needed the internet, they needed Twitter," she said.
“Beyond Utopia” offers a hint of hope for the time being as the family initially resettles in Thailand and must face a new reality. “Every piece of footage we have from Laos is incredible,” Gavin said.
Despite the dangers at hand, Gavin said her subjects had no problem with documenting their escape. “If they stayed behind, they might die,” she said. “Their concern wasn't about being captured. It was about survival and getting out.
Brian Welk provides additional reporting.