German filmmaker Marc Wiese throws a light on North Korea's labour camp system in the feature documentary, Camp 14: Total Control Zone. At the centre is Shin Dong-hyuk, a young Korean who was born in Camp 14, where he would also have died if he hadn't escaped, in 2005. His tales of horror are given extra weight by Hyuk Kwon, a former officer in Camp 22, and Oh Yang-nam, an ex member of North Korea's secret police.
Marc, is Camp 14: Total Control a film about how people can be conditioned by a system?
"Yes, exactly. There is one scene where Kwon is shown at home. It is 50-60 seconds, and it took me three months to get the access. But it was very important to show that he is a regular family father, like you and me. This raises the question, I say at every Q & A, of: 'Okay, it's very easy to talk about human rights; to live it is another thing. So, how would we react in a system like that?' So Camp 14 is, for me, a film about how a system is able to format three people."
The extent of Shin's conditioning is shocking.
"A little episode: Shin was being beaten every day - and a lot of times he was beaten really badly - so one day I said to him during the research, 'Hey, every day, 20 years, means more than 7000 times.' But he was not, and until today he is not, able to develop a real anger against the guards. He still thinks, 'I'd done something wrong, it was their right to beat me.'"
The line between perpetrator and victim becomes blurred in the film. In that respect it reminded me of Primo Levi's The Grey Zone.
"Yeah, it's fascinating. I know Primo Levi very well, and I like his work very much, because it's similar in a way. It's never so simple that you can say you have perpetrators, you have victims. And, of course, for me as a filmmaker it was very, very interesting to work with Shin and go into his world, and begin to learn more and more, and to find out more and more of his way of thinking."
The two guards seem like ordinary people. Is the film a warning, on one level, that under certain conditions, we might all be capable of acting like them?
"No, it's not a warning. A warning is too much. I just want to make people think. I don't want to give a warning. But don't take me the wrong way, it's a film about how the guards are formatted but still, in the end, you have to be able to act like that as a perpetrator. Me, personally, I never say I would be a hero in a system like that, a dictatorship. But, I am convinced that I am not able to rape a woman just because somebody is telling me, or the whole system is showing me, or the reality in the camp is showing me, I can do it.
"So, no, the perpetrators are no warning. I want to make people think with this scene with the family; I want, in a way, to confuse them in that moment. I told my assistant that if we use the interview without the scene, he's like a monster, a Hannibal Lecter, and that makes it very easy for the audience to distance themselves."
Is working with perpetrators something new for you?
"No, I've worked this way in other documentaries. I showed the audience people that appeared very kind and very sympathetic, and they said, 'What? Great guy!' And then suddenly they realised he's a real war criminal. Or they realised, from Palestine, he has sent 21 suicide attackers who blew themselves up in Jerusalem. I like to work that way. The audience has to think about it."
This is your preferred method?
"Yes, I always like to show the bad guys in stories. Because if you take, for instance, Srebrenica, My Lai, and all that stuff, in typical documentaries, you see three or five victims and hear their stories, and that's it. And I always like to say, 'Well this is a victim's story, but I want to see the guys that are responsible. I want to see the victims, but the responsible guys too.' So, in a way, it is a method of my work. And in nearly every documentary I have shot about war crimes - I made one about a war crime in No Gun Ri, South Korea, too - I like to show the perpetrators, to say to the audience, 'These are the guys that are responsible for what the victims are telling you.' I think it's very important."
In the film, Shin is clearly having a difficult time telling his story. Did this affect filming?
"There is one scene where he is saying, 'I need a break. I'm tired. It's too much,' and, in reality, that was happening 10 times. It happened often, or it happened in the morning that I asked him something and he realised, 'Okay, Marc wants to talk about this and this topic today,' and he told me, 'No, no, no. Let's do it on another day.' For example, I asked him about the water torture [talked about by Kwon], and he looked at me, and he's really going back into this world, and said, 'No, I don't want to talk about it.'"
You film Shin in his home. How did you choose the warehouse and hotel settings for the Kwon and Yang-nam interviews, respectively?
"The warehouse was just a setting where I said, 'I want nothing special in the background. I just want to see this guy. He shall be reduced in his story.' And Yang-nam, let me just say that I think he is different in his character because at the end of the film there is four minutes without edit where he starts to regret. I have never seen this before in my professional work, where the perpetrator is showing regret in front of a camera, and questioning his own behaviour. But he was very restrictive. He said, 'You are not visiting me at home. You are meeting me one time. I am coming into a hotel, and that's it.'"
Did they have any concerns about how they would be represented?
"Oh yeah. They were very clear. Yang-nam looked at me and said, 'My relatives are still living in North Korea. They will notice this film, I know it, and this is causing problems.' It was one of the reasons why he said at the end, 'I did it one time, but I will never do it again.'"
Shin was stripped of his humanity in the camp, or it was never actually allowed to develop beyond a basic survival instinct. Is he now going through a kind of painful growth as he perhaps looks at his situation in the camp, and his decision to inform on his own mother and brother, leading to their execution, differently?
"Well in a way he has to de-format himself. He was formatted by the system and now he has to de-format himself. You know, I've just come back from shooting and editing my new documentary in South Africa, so I was doing a lot of research into the end of Apartheid, things like that, and if you take Nelson Mandela, he was in jail for 25 years. Shin was 24. But the huge difference is Nelson Mandela had a life before, so he had an idea of a life. He had a wish to be free and live this again. Shin was born there. And if you are in this system from the first day of your life, you're totally formatted."
He is nostalgic for his old life in Camp 14 and would like to return there, because he is finding it hard to adapt to life outside. Did this surprise you?
"Totally, yeah. I made two weeks of this interview with him and it's at the end in the film and in reality it was at the end, too, in our interview. I asked him five times, 'You want to be back in your camp and live like that again?' It is very surprising but he's been so perfectly formatted by the system that for him this horror is regular life. And that's, in a way, the background which enables him to say in the end, 'I want to go back.'"
Camp 14: Total Control Zone is released October 4