TIFF 2012: ‘Camp 14 – Total Control Zone’ is one of the most important documentaries of our time

Camp 14 – Total Control Zone
Directed by Marc Wiese
2012, Germany, 101 minutes

When confronted with something both horrible and alien, it is often easiest to use humour to make light of the situation. North Korea, the last bastion of Stalinism and most introverted state on earth, certainly falls into this category. It has long been in the sights of Cracked articles, Team America, and an infamous subreddit. I’m not criticising—comedy is a valid response. It’s much more uncommon, though, to engage with North Korea honestly and seriously. Camp 14 – Total Control Zone is one of those rare engagements. It shines a harsh light on a place antithetical to free expression, but it does more than merely pillory something we can all agree is bad. This film explores the complex psychology of a former prisoner of North Korea and exposes the nature of complete psychological control.

Shin Dong-Hyuk did nothing to antagonize the government of North Korea. In fact, he was born in the camp as a result of his mother being “given” to his father for good behaviour; both were political prisoners. The structure of the film is created with interview answers coxed out of Shin Dong-Hyuk. Sometimes he narrates over other footage; sometimes he speaks directly to us. Additional footage and substance mainly comes from three places: interviews with two former North Korean officials, footage smuggled from within North Korea, and animated sequences.

Oh-Young-Nam was an officer with the secret police. Kwon-Hyuk was a commander of the guards at Camp 22. The segments shot with them are some of the best, albeit most difficult, in the film. Both wear immaculate three-piece suits. They could be bankers or diplomats, until they tepidly begin discussing rape, murder, and torture.

Footage smuggled from North Korea is scant, but truthfully we don’t need much. We are shown a police interrogation, along with shots of Camp 22 made by Kwon. They confirm the reality of the story, but any more and we’d be overwhelmed.

The animated segments that provide most of the film’s body are stark, harsh sequences of black, white, and mostly grey, though there are occasional splotches of colour. When Shin Dong-Hyuk relates a story—his first memory was a public execution—animation provides the context. Parts of the film that aren’t animated tend to contrast vibrant Seoul with shots of bleak, grey land just over the heavily militarized border.

Camp 14 – Total Control Zone is a story that needs to be slowly, and Wiese thankfully takes his time. As you watch the film, you sink into blackness, and you never really stop sinking. You think you’re reached the bottom, you think that it can’t possibly get any blacker, and the floor disappears once more. You’re falling deeper into psychological crisis and moral decay. As Shin Dong-Hyuk, Oh-Young-Nam, and Kwon-Hyuk tell their stories, the distinctions between victims and victimizers become blurry. They were cogs in a terrible machine. Even as they struggle to make the distinction between what they were then and what they are now, they also struggle to keep any trace of emotion from breaking upon their faces.

Few serious cultural attempts have been made in the West to delve into North Korea—most recently and notably perhaps is the graphic novel Pyongyang. Marc Wiese has done what few dare to do. Camp 14 – Total Control Zone is one of the most relevant documentaries of our time. Across a DMZ that separates two countries who have been at war since 1950, a series of camps hold around 200,000 people prisoners, with additional people employed as part of a Kafkaesque security apparatus. It’s one thing to rehabilitate one ex-prisoner, to forgive—or, at least, tolerate—two ex-security officials. What happens when the deadly stalemate is finally resolved and the curtain is finally pulled away? What happens when an entire nation suffers psychological breakdown brought on by the most profound culture shock imaginable? What happens when North Koreans reach the state Oh-Young-Kim finds himself in today, asking “Why did I behave that way? We’re all equal human beings.” None of us have answers to those essential questions; Camp 14 – Total Control Zone demands we begin seeking them now.

– Dave Robson

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6th to the 16th. Visit the festival’s official website here.

Camp 14 – Total Control Zone plays on the 11th, the 13th, and the 16th. Visit the film’s TIFF page here.

Scroll to Top