New Focus talks to Andy Glynne from Mosaic Films. They are producing an animated feature film based on Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy.
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New Focus: Why North Korea, a foreign and far away country?
Andy: In today’s shrinking and connected world, where we hear of events in Libya or Syria through the news, North Korea is not so distant to us. Yet the country’s real problems are not given due attention by the mainstream media, who instead focus their gaze on sensational stories such as the public appearances of the leader’s new wife. This makes North Korea a compelling case.
Looking back at the atrocities of the last century, the abuses going in North Korea are significant enough for it to be bewildering that the world at large is not doing more. I imagine future generations looking back on our generation and wondering why we kept silent; it feels like a cardinal sin to do nothing.
I am not a politician and cannot offer any solutions! As a filmmaker, all I have are skills at making films, and hoping that this in itself helps to raise awareness: this, I guess, is my way of contributing.
NF: Can you briefly tell us about the shape and content of the animated film?
Andy: There has been a proliferation of testimonies by defectors in recent years. The main aim of this project, however, is to raise awareness on the widest level rather than to create something that appeals only to a niche audience.
In order for this to happen, a compelling narrative is essential. Barbara Demick has managed to tell the story of North Korea in an incredibly engaging way, through the personal accounts of six defectors. In the narrative, there is love, there is drama, there are acts of heroism, and sometimes even a sense of hope. As such, we are able to connect with the characters and see how their belief in the system and the regime gradually disintegrates. For these reasons, her book, Nothing to Envy, provides a good place for us to start the project.
We are using animation to deliver this story because the form, which I have had a lot of experience in, is also very appropriate for the subject matter at hand: we could never obtain permission to film in North Korea for this kind of project; and with regard to working directly with defectors, there are issues concerning anonymity of those who are filmed. In addition, animation allows possibilities to recreate the world of North Korea in an evocative way, and through various visual techniques and other devices such as metaphor, we can create a strong sense of the emotional and subjective experience of life inside the DPRK.
NF: Before learning about North Korea and embarking on this project, you must have had previous exposure to and perceptions of human rights abuses. Can you tell us about such experiences?
Andy: As a Jew, I grew up with a strong sense of what went on during the holocaust. Of course, in terms of scale, the two cannot be compared, but their are commonalities in the way people are currently being treated – for example in the concentration camps or ‘gulags’. Yet being exposed to such stories imbued in me an innate sensitivity, and so the extreme suffering of North Koreans touches me in that compassionate place.
George Orwell’s portrayal of totalitarianism in his ‘1984’, and the thought control that existed in East Germany has obvious parallels with North Korea. In this way, the abuses going on in North Korea may not in themselves be unique. Nevertheless, what is unique to North Korea is the degree of the nation’s secrecy and isolation.
When we look at Soviet-era propaganda shown at an exhibition such as one that was held at the Tate Modern, most of us view the posters and slogans as something quite exotic and funny, as relics of cold-war propaganda. Yet these very same techniques are being used today in North Korea to control its people.
NF: Many defectors have endured extreme kinds of suffering. How do you feel about working with their stories?
Andy: Mosaic Films always worked with the stories of those who have experienced some kind of distress. We’ve worked on films about mental health, refugees, and those whose lives often navigate the margins of society. My background is as a clinical psychologist, in which I have experience working as a clinician. In this way, working with affliction is something I have always done.
NF: When we talk about North Korean defectors, it is difficult to remain silent on the very practical issue of China’s repatriation of defectors to North Korea, where they end up in labour camps or even executed. Do you have any comments on this issue?
Andy: Obviously, China does not hold a good human rights record. It seems to be progressing slowly in this area, perhaps due to the increasing opportunities for its citizens to voice their protest. The international community has an obligation to speak up about any violation of our rights, whether this be in China, North Korea or anywhere.
Generally speaking, North Korea is clearly violating international laws in the way it treats its people. The international community has an obligation to do something about this. Yet the political agenda of the west is very much focused on the Middle East, and other issues which are seen as more urgent or pressing. Although this is – in some regard – understandable, there needs to be a shift in focus to include North Korea as an important issue to be addressed on the global stage.
I hope the film will leverage mainstream opinion in this regard.
NF: New Focus is an organisation that is run by, and on behalf of, defectors. Do you have a message for us?
Andy:The most authentic narratives come from the people themselves. It is in many ways far more powerful for defectors to produce a film themselves, using their own voices. Media is the form of global communication in today’s world.