Published Feb 25, 2013Perceptions of morality are entirely based upon systematic methods of control. There is no right; there is no wrong; there is only what we're taught through punishment and reward.
The story of Shin Dong-hyuk, as told by German director Marc Weise, falls firmly on the nurture side of the age-old debate. But really, sides in a philosophical argument are illusory. Adaptability in the interest of survival is the core trait of all life forms and human beings are not exempt from the laws of nature. We are animals, and given the right conditions, our opposable thumbs and evolved cerebral functions just make us all the more capable of inventive acts of sadistic savagery and degradation.
The subject of Camp 14: Total Control Zone, Shin Dong-hyuk, was born inside of a North Korean prison camp. His mother was given to his father as a reward for obedience and hard work. He was lucky to have even survived the gestation period. If a guard had impregnated his mother, both would have been dead in a ditch or publicly executed on trumped up charges as soon as her belly began to curve. But Shin was lucky. That is, if you consider a childhood of torture and conditioning to have no regard for the value of any life outside of your own to be fortuitous.
After all he has been through, which is one of the most harrowing stories ever told on screen (Anne Frank had it easy by comparison), Shin's reward is the invasive, inconsiderate filmmaking of Marc Weise.
Sure, the now twenty-nine year old Korean man was finally ready to tell his tale but if ever there were a time for compassion from a documentarian, a subject politely requesting a break when overcome with memories of being roast over a fire is that time. Keeping the camera rolling while this brave, wounded young man breaks down in tears for extended periods is exploitative and only demonstrates that Weise is yet another person in a position of influence who exerts control to further his own agenda.
Aside from the story itself being a compelling indictment of human behaviour and the unprecedented access to parties on both sides of the situation – Weise also interviews a former guard from Camp 14 and a former member of the secret police, both of whom are surprisingly candid about, and not so surprisingly remorseful for, their actions – the filmmaking is rather clumsy.
Having an English voice translation speaking over Shin instead of subtitles bulldozes the emotional nuance of verbalization in what is a very personal account. Also: since there is very little supporting footage available (a few interrogation tapes were smuggled out of the country by a human rights organization), Weise recreates sections of Shin's story through rudimentary animation. Reducing these horrific experiences to a cartoon for the sake of literal translation rather than finding symbolic juxtapositions is somewhat lazy and does a disservice to the potency of the content.
Shin's is a story well worth sharing, especially when you see how he reacts to the hobbling control and dehumanizing power of money in "free" societies, but one that might be better suited to cinematic recreation by a talented filmmaker than a slipshod documentary by a jerk with a camera.
Camp 14: Total Control Zone screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at 6:30 pm on February 27th, 2013. The subject of the documentary, Shin Dong-hyuk, will be in attendance. (Engstfeld Film)