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The Defector – Escape from North Korea

In this intriguing POV documentary – which premiered at IDFA 2012 – director and producer Ann Shin takes significant risks to reveal how tough it is to truly escape from one of the world’s most secretive and brutal authoritarian regimes.

In the dim light of a cab we are introduced to ‘Dragon’, his face half hidden behind the headrest of his seat. He’s arranging what sounds like a well-orchestrated abduction plot. However, Dragon is not a kidnapper, he’s something a bit more complicated that, and Korean-Canadian filmmaker Ann Shin is about to follow him to document an astonishing and harrowing journey.

In 2001, Dragon escaped from his home in North Korea across the border to northern China, one of the last remaining paths offered to those who wish to ‘defect’ from this isolationist and poverty-stricken dictatorship.

Yet, entering China gave Dragon little protection. If a North Korean defector is found in China, they are not acknowledged as a refugee but are sent back to authorities in North Korea where they face imprisonment, and perhaps even death, as punishment for escaping. Defectors can only consider themselves safe once they get out of China and are granted asylum by another country – and this is no easy feat.

After his successful escape from North Korea and China, Dragon made it his profession to help others do the same, working as a ‘broker’ to help guide defectors on a perilous 5,000km trip through China to cross the borders of Laos, and into Thailand, where they can seek refugee status.

Dragon’s work is illegal and puts him at great risk, not to mention the safety of those he is assisting. But there’s an upside to his dangerous career choice, as a broker with a successful track record, he can charge significant sums for his work.

From the outset, Shin presents Dragon as a thoroughly dodgy character. Despite his protestations that he is no shady criminal, and his assertions that he is in fact a ‘human rights activist’, we can sense that he is primarily driven to this work because it provides significant financial rewards. Indeed, Shin, who provides a strong voice within the film, is highly distrustful of the man.

But this is not just a story about Dragon, it also focuses on those defectors who need Dragon’s help. In this case, it’s three North-Korean women who are willing to pay to be smuggled across borders just to escape the horrors of their past lives and to risk everything to gain the freedom that they have never had.

Shin’s documentary is intense. Following a nail-biting expedition moving from buses, trains, safe houses, cars and hikes through forests, learning the hardships that the defectors have gone through, hearing that even if they escape China, the future cannot be guaranteed to be bright.

The Defector is a good piece of undercover filmmaking, reminding audiences of the profound and largely untold abuses of human rights that continue in North Korea by a government that is protected by China, and is almost completely inaccessible to the rest of the world.

Moreover, the film combines shaky hidden camera work with cinematic shots to produce a documentary which is visually impressive considering the conditions in which it was made.

Yet sadly, this very worthy film left me wanting. I wanted to know more about the defectors and their stories, more on their thoughts and experiences of North Korea, I wanted more to be revealed about the regime that defies international law, rejects the modern world, and embraces propaganda and absolute rule.

Of course, this is asking too much of a film which already reveals a human smuggling operation which has been largely hidden from western eyes.  Shin’s work is limited by how much information she can access considering the illegality of human smuggling operations, how secretive and fearful her subjects are, and how strong their desires to maintain anonymity.


For more information and to book tickets visit the IDFA website.


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Emma's passion for documentary film developed whilst studying History and Politics at Warwick University. After interning for the BBC's international documentary strand 'Storyville' she became intent on working in the documentary film-making industry and now works for a London-based independent production company [Spirit Level Film]. Emma is one of the only documentary-lovers around that thinks Errol Morris' films are boring.

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