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Just about the worst life you can imagine has been lived by Shin Dong-Huyk. Born into Camp 14, a North Korean labour camp for political prisoners, Shin began slave labour at age six. He starved constantly, suffered daily beatings and feared death at any moment. Those who live in Camp 14 have been politically condemned; guards admit that they could torture or kill a prisoner at their whim. Having escaped across the Chinese border, Shin gives a rare look into a harsh world we know little about. This is a tough documentary to watch.

Camp 14 – Total Control Zone ’s power comes almost entirely from lengthy close-up shots of Shin being interviewed. In his bare, neat apartment, Shin sits on a staircase and slowly lets it all out. Frequent pauses and pleas to take a break are uncomfortable and revealing. His confessions go from bad to worse. In one shocking moment, the otherwise handsome young man shows us his arms, grotesquely bent out of shape from torture. Filmmaker Marc Wiese also interviews several ex-guards, who candidly confess to all kinds of terrible acts. In addition to interviews, Wiese throws in some flash-style animation to illustrate Shin’s narrative. Next to the raw confession, however, these sequences feel cartoonish and inadequate. What makes Camp 14 so compelling – beyond the unbelievable facts – is the behaviour of those interviewed. While sometimes Shin and the guards appear as devastated as their confessions would warrant, just as often they look expressionless. In one amazing turn, Shin even admits to having nostalgia for North Korea: South Korean life is money-driven and alienating.

Is Camp 14 – Total Control Zone Essential Human Rights Watch Viewing?

Although it might hurt, yes – especially because Shin Dong-Huyk himself will be attending tonight’s screening. After seeing endless satirical riffs in the media on Kim Jong-Il and his son, I’ve found myself laughing at North Korea more often than worrying about its totalitarianism. Camp 14 reminds us that there’s little to laugh about when people are seriously suffering.

Camp 14  Screening Time

Camp 14  Trailer