There are some subjects so horrific, so far beyond our understanding, that the mind goes numb. Such is the case with Marc Wiese’s chilling docu “Camp 14 — Total Control Zone.” Shin Dong-huyk was born in a North Korean prison camp and only discovered the world beyond the barbed wire when he escaped at the age of 23. Raised without a concept of basic socialization, he is, unsurprisingly, a deeply traumatized man. Wiese also interviews a former camp guard and an ex-secret policeman, completing a picture of staggering inhumanity. Fest play is assured, followed by likely worldwide satcast rotation.
Now living in South Korea, Shin tells his full story for the first time before a camera. He was born to parents imprisoned in Kaechon’s Camp 14 (his father was “rewarded” with his mother for good behavior), and his first memory, at age 4, is of a public execution. Forced labor in the mines began when he was 6; starvation rations were the norm, supplemented occasionally by captured rats (the only meat Shin tasted). He lived with his mother in one room with no furniture; only Harry Harlow’s infamous maternal-deprivation experiments on primates come close to this complete absence of normal social structures.
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With family members conditioned to spy on each other, Shin betrayed his mother and brother when he overheard them conspiring to hide his sibling from the labor overseers. All were thrown into the camp’s prison, where Shin was held for seven months and subjected to frequent torture. On release, he and his father were forced to watch the execution of his mother and brother; Shin was 14 and felt nothing, since the concept of family didn’t exist for him.
Listening to these stories, which Shin tells with frequent interruptions to compose himself, is deeply unnerving — so much so that auds are unlikely to be moved to tears, since the idea of someone so utterly deprived of the milk of human kindness is beyond comprehension. Shin now lectures to various human-rights groups, yet he’s obviously uncomfortable wherever he goes: A scene of him shopping in an enormous grocery store in Seoul is almost as jarring for the viewer as for Shin himself, raised with nothing and now confronted by bloated consumerism.
Likewise, a scene together with members of Link (Liberty in North Korea), buoyant young Americans interacting as if it’s a weekend bonding workshop, creates an odd dissociation. No wonder Shin says at the end that he wants to go back to the camp: He’s so damaged, physically and mentally, that it’s the only place where he understands how to fit in.
Wiese also tracked down two other defectors, both former cogs in North Korea’s repressive regime. Oh Yang-nam is an ex-secret policeman who speaks of his previous job with a studied formality. Hyuk Kwon is another matter: A guard at Camp 14, he discusses his various crimes, including torture, rape and the murders of prisoners he impregnated, with a matter-of-fact delivery that terrifies. His amateur footage of the camp, including a prisoner’s beating, is the only image from inside the fence.
Supplementing these clips are animated sequences of the camp created by Ali Soozandeh (“The Green Wave”). Judiciously used to illustrate Shin’s story, the discreet, largely gray images help auds visualize the inconceivable.