‘Beyond Utopia’ Director Madeleine Gavin on Capturing the Harrowing Journey of North Korean Defectors: ‘I Wanted to Crack That World Open’

Beyond Utopia
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Beyond Utopia” offers an astonishing look at the lengths people will go for freedom. The new documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it has attracted interest from several streaming companies, takes viewers on a harrowing journey as one family risks everything to escape from North Korea.

For director Madeleine Gavin, “Beyond Utopia” is an opportunity to change the conversation around the repressive regime by moving the focus from its brutal leader Kim Jong-un and onto the ordinary citizens who have been abused and neglected by the country.

“As I researched this film, I became more and more outraged that nobody is talking about North Koreans themselves,” says Gavin. “I wanted to crack that world open to people. Too often, we focus on what North Korea’s leaders want us to focus on, which is their nukes. That’s their only leverage. Without them, they would not exist as a country. We hear about missile launches, parades and Kim Jong-un watching over everything, smiling and laughing.”

Initially, Gavin was approached about making a documentary about Hyeonseo Lee, a defector who wrote the memoir “The Girl With Seven Names.” But while researching that project, Gavin learned about the Underground Railroad for North Koreans looking to flee the country, one that takes them through China, Laos, Vietnam and eventually into South Korea.

That put her in touch with Pastor Seungeun Kim, a South Korean man who helps defectors through his network of volunteers. Lee appears in the film as an expert on North Korea, but much of “Beyond Utopia” involves the five-person Ro family, as they flee the Chinese border, aided by Pastor Kim’s associates, and then seek refuge in a series of safe houses. The movie also documents the efforts of Soyeon Lee to get her son out of North Korea, so he can join her in South Korea, where she now lives.

“Pastor Kim is incredibly protective of his networks and of the people he’s trying to help rescue,” says Gavin. “As a result, it took many months to get to know him and to gain his trust. Once that happened, however, Pastor Kim helped us take the project to unimaginable places. Ultimately, he gave us the opportunity to embed with and document two attempts at defection. No other film has ever entered that world the way we were able to and Pastor Kim was central to this happening.”

In the final product, there’s extraordinary footage of the Ro’s as they stumble through dense forest, trying to evade authorities, much of it shot with iPhones and flip-phone cameras. There are also interviews with the defectors in their various stops along Southeast Asia. In order to keep Pastor Kim’s network intact, Gavin changed a few details of the journey.

“China is closely allied with North Korea, and there is no way that we as filmmakers could shoot there without putting the family at risk,” says Gavin. “Pastor Kim can’t travel to China either because he has been known by the regime for decades. However, his network of brokers and farmers along the border of China and North Korea were able to help the defectors and to shoot footage along the way.”

In the past, North Korea has responded dramatically to attempts to paint the regime in an unfavorable light. U.S. authorities say the country orchestrated an embarrassing hack of Sony Pictures in retaliation for the studio’s release of “The Interview,” a Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy that lampooned Kim Jong-un. Was Gavin concerned about her safety?

“At first, we were concerned,” says Gavin. “But the more that I’ve learned about the North Korean government, the less concerned I am. Kim Jong-un is called a brutal this and that on the news every time he’s mentioned. He apparently doesn’t mind that at all. The reason the Sony thing was so upsetting to him was the fact that he was mocked.”

The saddest part of “Beyond Utopia” may be its coda. Because of COVID-19 and China’s new restrictions on travel, it has become increasingly difficult for Pastor Kim and his allies to help defectors who want to flee North Korea.

“It’s horrible,” says Gavin. “This is going to lead to so much more suffering.”