Meet the Filmmakers: NC Heikin--'Kimjongilia'

 

Editor's Note: Kimjongilia, which screened as part of the 2009 DocuWeeks Theatrical Documentary Showcase, opens Friday, March 19, in New York City through Lorber Films. Here's an interview with director/producer/writer NC Heikin that we published in conjunction with DocuWeeks.

 

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, July 31-August 20 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the
reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is NC Heikin, director/producer/writer of Kimjongilia..

Synopsis: Kimjongilia follows several North Korean defectors as they tell their astonishing stories of starvation, persecution and escape from the world's worst human rights violator, the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The kimjongilia is a flower that was bred to celebrate North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's 46th birthday, and is said to represent love, peace, justice and wisdom. Children sent to prison for alleged crimes of their grandfathers; refugees caught in China and deported back to North Korea for imprisonment and torture; relentless famine: These testimonies give lie to the lofty propaganda of Kim Jong Il's regime.

IDA: What inspired you to make Kimjongilia?
 

NC Heikin: I was completely driven by this story of human rights in North Korea,
children in concentration camps, the total repression in which North Koreans live. When I first heard about this issue, I wanted to do an adaptation of a true story about one of my subjects, Kang Chol Hwan. I optioned his memoir and wrote a very moving screenplay based on it, imagining a sort of Empire of the Sun feature. When it became obvious that I was not going to be able to
get any partners on the project, I felt so frustrated, and so compelled to get the story out, that I decided to try making it as a documentary. All I knew was that I had to tell this story. The idea of children being taken to labor camps was so repellent to me that I felt a personal responsibility to do something to stop it.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them? 

NCH: The biggest challenge was the fact that there was no footage of the North Korean camps or the starvation or anything directly related to the testimonies. There is virtually no archival material on it, and no way to go and film something. Another difficulty was how to weave together many different characters, all of whom are important, into a cohesive, expressive whole.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

NCH: At first, I wanted to tell one character's story exclusively, and pin different bits of information and side stories on one arc. But as I met more and more defectors, I realized I wanted to give as many people as possible a voice. It became very important to me to let everyone
speak, as one of the devastations of North Korea is the utter clampdown on speech and thought inside the country.  

IDA:    As you've screened Kimjongilia--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

NCH: People are stunned. The most frequent response is, "I had no idea." It is interesting how we think we know about a subject from the bytes we hear on TV when a headline-making event grabs our attention. Kim Jong Il is a master at making headlines. But this film goes behind his oddball hairdo and nuclear swagger to the human beings inside the country, and that's the story we don't really know. I feel privileged to have this opportunity to tell
it. I'm always a little surprised when I get political questions from people who want to rehash the Cold War and assign blame. To me, this is just not the point. It's a human rights issue, period.

IDA:  What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

NCH: The biggest influence was definitely Claude Lanzmann and Shoah. I tried to emulate him for the powerful way he used testimony. I also loved The Thin Blue Line for  its creativity in visualizing the crime in the absence of footage--not to mention the fact that it exonerates a wrongly accused man. Not a bad use of film! Lately, I loved both  Trouble the Water and Man on Wire-- two very different films, but both brilliant.

Kimjongilia will be screening at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinema in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York City.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program in Los Angeles, click here.

To purchase tickets for DocuWeeksTM in Los Angeles, click here.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for DocuWeeksTM in New York, click here.