Sundance documentary aims to lift veil on North Korea

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jan 17 2009 05:15 PM | Updated as of Jan 18 2009 01:15 AM

PARK CITY, Utah - North Korea's prison system and the cult of personality surrounding the Stalinist nation's leader Kim Jong-Il are the subject of a documentary screening at the Sundance Film Festival.

Director NC Heikin's film "Kimjongilia" -- named after the hybrid red begonia created to honor the totalitarian state's ruler -- aims to lift the veil on the most isolated country on earth.

Heikin interviewed more than a dozen survivors of North Korean jails for the feature, which is also interspersed with archival footage of propaganda films and original scenes that illustrate daily life.

"It's a big, untold story on human rights. I want to get the word out that people are suffering," Heikin told AFP.

Heikin offers a vignette of North Korean leaders Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il. For Kim Jong-Il's 46th birthday, the hybrid red begonia kimjongilia was created -- symbolizing wisdom, love, justice and peace. "It struck me as the height of irony," said Heikin.

One of the main figures in "Kimjongilia" is Lee Shin, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in China after escaping.

Despite being a talented singer, she was told her voice was "capitalist."

Shin spent five years in sexual slavery before reaching South Korea in 2003.

"No one knows about the subject, no one knows what these people are suffering, nobody hears their stories," Heikin said.

Heikin used archival footage from North Korean propaganda films along with her own dance interpretation to add emotion to the narrative.

"I thought it was a way to express the inexpressible that people are talking about," Heikin said.

Throughout the film, a uniformed traffic cop appears marching, saluting and dancing on screen.

Heikin said the uniformed female traffic cop is an icon of North Korea and in her film served to express a desire to be free of the uniform.

"The constrictions. And in other places it's much more dramatic what she is doing. I use her a lot during the story of the girl who was caught in a sexual traffic ring. The dancing in that is very strong," said Heikin.

Another main figure in the film is "Mrs. Kim," a former dancer whose best friend became Kim Jong-Il's lover.

The woman said her knowledge of the affair sent her and her family to prison camps. She lost her parents, husband and three of four children. Her remaining son survived but is in coma after suffering severe torture.

Heikin began her theater career as a performer. Her musical-theater playwriting credits include "Non Pasquale" produced at the New York Shakespeare Festival's Delacorte Theater with Wilford Leach directing.