Movie Review ‘Camp 14: Total Control Zone’

Human Rights Watch Film Festival
June 18, 2013 Updated: June 18, 2013

Director: Marc Wiese
Running Time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

As a child born into a life in North Korea’s prison camps, Shin Dong-huyk thought nothing was amiss when he witnessed the three-hour beating of an 8-year-old girl caught with five grains of wheat in her pocket. However, all viewers of good conscience will be horrified by the stories that Shin and two former DPRK officials have to tell in Marc Wiese’s documentary “Camp 14: Total Control Zone,” which screens during the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

That poor girl died from the injuries she sustained from her “teacher.” Her case is the norm rather than the exception. Children born to prisoners (because a guard either raped their mothers or arranged a coupling as a reward for heavy toiling) have a short life expectancy. Shin beat the odds surviving Camp 14 into his teen years, but at a price. At one point, Shin’s brainwashing led him to make a decision that still haunts him today.

Hyuk Kwon was a guard at Camp 22, where he tortured and executed prisoners on a daily basis. Oh Yangnam was a member of the secret police, who regularly rounded up and interrogated suspects on the thinnest of pretexts. Both have defected to South Korea, yet they worry that they might see some of the prisoners they once tormented should the two Koreas ever unify. Their accounts match Shin’s experiences, chapter and verse.

Through their testimony, sometimes illustrated by Ali Soozandeh’s stark animated sequences, “Control” conveys the breadth and depth of the communist regime’s thought control. Clearly, any notion of human rights is absolutely foreign to North Koreans. Ostensibly, “Control” ends on an ironic note, with Shin expressing his ambivalence about the free South. Yet, his remarks really prove just how profoundly broken he is as a human being.

Wiese has assembled a riveting examination of oppression and its lasting impact on the human psyche. While he maintains an intimate focus on his interview subjects, Soozandeh’s animation is grimly evocative, adding a truly cinematic dimension to the documentary. 

This is a very good film, but also a very depressing one. The picture of North Korea that emerges is truly the closest thing on earth to Orwell’s “1984”—a dystopian state with complete disregard for its citizens’ well-being. However, it points viewers toward Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a rescue and advocacy organization that Shin is affiliated with. Frankly, this is exactly the sort of film that the Human Rights Watch Film Festival needs to program more often (instead of Occupy Wall Street polemics). 

Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit