Freedom Fighter: Ann Shin

For documentary director Ann Shin, getting the funding, organizing a crew, and writing her film was the easy part. Following escapees out of North Korea through China, Laos, South Korea, and Thailand while facing possible imprisonment along the way proved much harder. 

 

In her latest film, The Defector: Escape From North Korea, Canadian director Ann Shin profiles the plight of those who make it out of North Korea with both a traditional documentary that chronicles the human trafficking process and an interactive game that allows players to assume the part of a defector themselves, making many of the same heartbreaking choices along the way. Blurring the faces of her subjects, many of whom she never had met in person prior to flying to Northern China to begin filming, Shin and crew not only risked prison themselves; they also had the responsibility of ensuring that her film subjects stayed safe—under North Korean law, defectors face anywhere from five years of hard labor to life in prison or the death penalty, reports The Guardian—and their families back home were protected if something went wrong. The resulting undercover film is a testament to the trust Shin and crew developed with those escaping and may be the first documentary in the world to gain such intimate access to actual human smugglers. It is currently showing at film festivals worldwide. 

Get In Media: This is such a dangerous film to make. How did you convince your subjects to be on camera?

Ann Shin: It’s funny; all defectors really want to get this story told. They’re living in such extreme circumstances and they’ve come through so much, they do want to share their stories, but most of them are afraid for their own lives and the lives of their families back home in North Korea. Most of them actually don’t want to get their faces shown, so we arrived at a happy medium. We would follow them, we hung out with them, they got to know us and trust us, and we ensured that we would keep their identities concealed.

GM: What kind of research and background work did you do prior to filming?

AS: I read a lot of books by writers and journalists about North Korea and North Korean defectors and people in aid agencies and churches that are helping them. Then I met a lot of defectors and defector groups in Canada and the U.S. Through them and also the organizations that are helping North Korean defectors, I started to get a constellation of contacts in China, in North Korea, in Thailand, in the United States, and Canada. A lot of the aid agencies, while they’re very interested in getting this story out there, they’re worried about filming in places like China or other parts of Asia because North Korean defectors are illegal migrants in certain parts of Asia, so assisting them could be considered illegal activity. A lot of aid agencies, and some great ones, really wanted to help with the film. In the end they were too concerned about the risk and didn’t participate.

I worked a lot with people who call themselves brokers and in actual fact, they’re human smugglers. They’re people who take money and put themselves at incredible risk and help these people out of illegal situations. I worked a lot with these brokers, or human smugglers, and set it up so that I could follow one of them. Over the phone and through suggestions and recommendations from other people, I chose a broker to work with and he said he had a group of people lined up who all agreed and were interested in being part of the documentary. I arrived in China with him, in Northern China, and it turns out, he hadn’t told them at all. When I arrived in China, I realized he hadn’t even talked to those guys so I had to win their trust while I was there. It was kind of flying by the seat of our pants.

GIM: How did you win their trust?

AS: I think one of the most rewarding things about documentary is the rapport that a documentary filmmaker has with the subjects of the film. That’s really what establishes trust between your characters and yourself as a filmmaker. The only reason why I wanted to do this story is because I was so moved by it and compelled to do something about it, so I think my genuine concern was very apparent. I speak Korean as well and I have some relatives who used to be in North Korea and who came down to South Korea during the North Korean War. For all these reasons, I was really kind of empathetic with the subjects and I think it helped a lot that I spoke the language. We didn’t have to communicate between a translator, we were directly there, and we’re also living and eating together in the same safe house, which is basically a two-bedroom apartment in nowhere, in nondescript nowhere.

GIM: Why include an interactive component?

AS: It was part of the vision all along. What I wanted to do on the subject was to try and create something that would really help viewers understand what it’s like to be a North Korean today and what it’s like to try and escape from North Korea.

GIM: How did the process of creating that interactive component stack up to the process for creating the documentary?

AS: Creating the interactive documentary was much more creatively stimulating in some ways because when you are programming interactivity, there’s so much more you think about because you’re thinking about the user experience every second. Whereas with a film, you’re kind of thinking about the narrative alone and the cohesiveness of the narrative and you are thinking about your audience as well. But, particularly with documentary, you are limited by your material. You have to work with what you shot, whatever happened in real life is what you have to work with. But with the interactive, we could sculpt and shape the story in any way we decided to and portray it in any way. In that way, [the interactive component] was really kind of exciting and stimulating to do and also lots of work.

GIM: With a film like this where much of it is filmed in secret, how do you manage sound issues?

AS: Our sound man was used to filming undercover. What he used was like a Tascam recorder. You can use any brand name, but it was one of those portable recorders. It was a high-quality stereo recorder, but he just put it in a man-pouch. He’d just go and hang out next to the subjects that we were filming. We were filming with DSLR cameras, often slung around our necks, and they’re kind of held at waist-level, so it was really, really subtle filming. I was just really impressed with the way they filmed and solved that. Some scenes we had some sound problems, but generally it was really quite good.

Ann Shin reviews footage

GIM: The pairing of a documentary and an interactive portion seems like a very natural connection. Is that a trend that you expect to happen within documentaries coming up?

AS: There’s a lot of interesting work being done and there are some venues to see this, like the Submarine Channel or IDFA DocLab, and South by Southwest Interactive does a lot in this realm. There’s a growing venue for webdocs. I’d say that it’s still really questionable as to where it’s going to go because some really cool groundbreaking work is done, but none of it’s paid for by the end user, so there’s not really a business model on the back end for making webdocs. Right now, they’re all financed by industry and foundations. My hope is that we’ll be able to have a business model for it soon, where end users maybe pay after they view it or before they view it or where there are channels online that stream it and you could subscribe to that channel. This would mean there’d be a lot more webdocs being produced.

GIM: Some filmmakers argue that there’s less money for documentaries now while others argue that the web has opened up more opportunities for filmmakers. What are your feelings?

AS: It’s true that there are perhaps fewer slots for documentary and smaller broadcaster budgets for documentary, but it’s almost as if the rest of the documentary community around the world has stepped up to the plate. Pretty much every [film] festival has some kind of fund that they’re going to contribute to docs, whether it’s accelerator programs or finishing fund programs. There are more foundations that want to fund docs as well, so I would be on the optimistic side of this and I’d say that there is money out there for docs. It’s a bit more work now than it used to be to line up all your financing, but having gone through that with my latest doc, I’d say all that work really does pay off because you’ve increased your community of interested viewers for your doc in the end.

GIM: What do you recommend for students who want to get into socially conscious documentaries?

AS: Get to know your subjects. Hang out with them and establish access and trust and start filming. You can create little webdocs for starters, shorts or webisodes or even a short reel. I think that is important and it’s also a way to start pitching your film to people. To have some tape with a well-thought-out treatment is a great way to pitch your idea to established funders even if you’re not established yourself. If you can demonstrate the tapes, they’ll stop and listen to you. In that process, you should try and talk to any experienced producer or director along the way. Get their eyes on your tape. Get their eyes on your rough cut. Get their eyes on your treatment and get their feedback because that will be invaluable. You’ll be able to learn so much from the feedback that people give you and you’d be surprised at how many established filmmakers would be happy to give you their time.

Click here to rent The Defector: Escape From North Korea and here to check out the interactive experience.

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