2022 SU General Election Full Supplement

Photo credit IMDB

CUFF.Docs 2023: Beyond Utopia

By Nimra Amir, November 30 2023—

Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers for the film Beyond Utopia.

The award-winning documentary Beyond Utopia, directed by Madeleine Gavin, on North Korean defectors — which screened at the CUFF.Docs Documentary Film Festival (CUFF.Docs) on Nov. 25 — opened with the horrifying fact that none of the footage was recreated or even dramatized. It is then, right at the start of the documentary, that viewers must accept the harsh truth that it is not just a film for some but their actual realities. 

We follow South Korean pastor Sung-eun Kim in guiding North Korean defectors who want to escape the totalitarian regime through an underground network. We are quickly introduced to the Ro family — made up of a mother, father, two children and a grandmother — who were able to contact Kim after they were taken in by the farmer who found them wandering for days on Changbai Mountain across the heavily patrolled Yalu River that separates China and North Korea. Thankfully so, as Kim addresses that the Ro family could have also been taken in by those who would sell North Korean defectors into sex trafficking or organ harvesting.

We quickly learn that crossing the Yalu River is only the start. If the Ro family wants real freedom then they must illegally trek with greedy brokers through China, Vietnam and Laos before they arrive in Thailand. The route is treacherous with risks for injuries, but that is the very least of the worries. If the Ro family is caught by authorities at any point before they arrive in Thailand, they would be deported back as traitors to North Korea, where they would be tortured or even executed. 

Kim in his journey with the Ro family becomes the backbone of the documentary — although we also follow other North Korean defectors like Soyeon Lee, who is attempting to reunite with her son, and Hyeonseo Lee, who is attempting to spread awareness. Yet Kim, amongst it all, remains the steady beacon for the North Korean defectors who contact him despite his own trauma like the spinal injury he suffered on some previous trek or the death of his son. It is because of his strength that North Korean defectors like the Ro family have a chance of not only escaping the totalitarian regime but also escaping the propaganda that has made up their worldview for decades. 

 “I feel like our country must become more developed,” says the grandmother, once they have reached Vietnam. “I mean I know how intelligent our Marshal Kim Jong-un is, so are our people just not smart?”

It is not until the Ro family is successfully rehabilitated into South Korea, that we see the mental shift of the Ro family. Their only regret is that they were not able to escape the regime and its propaganda sooner. In this way, Beyond Utopia is much more than the story of torment that North Koreans must live through but also the story of hope — that against all odds, there is a chance of freedom.

To learn more about future screenings at CUFF.Docs like Beyond Utopia, you can visit the CUFF.Docs website

Hiring | Staff | Advertising | Contact | PDF version | Archive | Volunteer | SU

The Gauntlet