Filmmakers Jim Butterworth and Lisa Sleeth talk about the challenges of
filming those whose safety depends on anonymity and why he took on the
crisis in North Korea.
What led you to make this film? / How did you learn about the plight of North Korean refugees?
We attended a presentation by a New York Times reporter on North Korea. Afterwards, we cornered him and that’s when he said that the real story on North Korea is the human rights story—the 200,000 extrajudicial imprisonments, the two to three million dead in the food crisis and the 250,000 refugees in China. We were blown away by this and couldn’t believe that it wasn’t generally known. So we thought to ourselves “what can we do to help?” And that’s when we decided to make a documentary.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Well, the basic logistics were huge challenges. First, neither of us speaks Korean or Chinese. Second, we had to film undercover, often using hidden cameras or posing as tourists. Third, before this, neither of us had even touched a camcorder, much less taken a film class, so we had to learn on the fly. And fourth, we had to figure out how to pay for it all.
The filmmakers share a moment of revelation they experienced in the process of making the film.
We were operating on the Chinese-North Korean border and went to interview a refugee family (making especially certain we weren’t being tailed). The mother had escaped a year earlier with her two girls and was now a “wife” to a Chinese farmer. Her son had just escaped and joined them, reuniting her family. The son is several years older than his sisters; however, because he stayed behind in North Korea he was now the shortest. Seeing such dramatic effects of malnourishment firsthand was astonishing.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
We made this film for just one reason: to bring awareness to this issue so that it might lead to a durable solution to the plight of the North Korean refugees. This could mean a change in policy at the UNHCR and/or governments like China; new laws, like the North Korea Human Rights Act in the U.S. or inspiring people to get involved in direct humanitarian efforts.
What period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude?
We first learned of the issue in July 2003, and by October 1 we were on a plane to Seoul. We spent two months in Korea and China but did not wrap shooting all our interviews until we finally got our UNHCR interview in May 2004. Really, the whole film was made in near-record time.
Did you ever fear for your life during filming?
Not for our lives, per se, but there were definitely some moments where we stood close to the flame. Our big concern, however, was for the people with whom we came in contact—the activists and refugees. We had to be completely certain not to lead authorities inadvertently to them; for them, it was a matter of life and death.
Are you still involved with the North Korean refugee cause?
Absolutely. This issue, unfortunately, is very much real and still happening and SEOUL TRAIN seems to speak to people. When you make a film like this it never escapes you, like having kids grow up and move out but they’re always your kids! So we continue to show the film and speak to groups, communicate with the Underground Railroad and push for policy change.
The independent film business is difficult. What keeps you motivated?
In a word: results. Literally hundreds of people have emailed us or come up to us and said, “The reason I’m involved in this issue is because of your film.” At a policy level, we’ve shown SEOUL TRAIN on Capitol Hill on three occasions and to numerous other parliamentary and policy groups worldwide and seen laws passed and policies changed. Independent film is tough in many respects but it’s completely rewarding.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
We really wanted to follow a refugee group on the Underground Railroad all the way from North Korea to Mongolia, but it was just way too dangerous for us to be around a group that much. Our presence clearly would’ve tipped off authorities.
SEOUL TRAIN is your first film. Any milestones or memories that will make this film different from the films to come?
When we decided to make a documentary, we first had to figure out what docs were all about, so we headed for L.A. in August 2003 and went to a documentary film festival. As we were sitting in this fantastic theater at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood, we said to each other, “Can you imagine if we had a film that someday played in this theater?” The thought was just so foreign and remote to us. Well, not 15 months later, SEOUL TRAIN premiered in that same theater.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
We’re still learning ourselves, so we were hoping to get some advice! But you’ve got to get out there and just hustle your film—to festivals, distributors, critics, audiences, TV programmers and everyone. And especially if you’re making a documentary, get a great editor(like Aaron Lubarsky!)—someone that you’ll work well with to create a better film.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
For a couple of reasons: First is the reach–PBS is in 95 percent of U.S. households and we craved that kind of exposure for the crisis. Second is PBS’s reputation as a fair and independent platform since everything dealing with North Korea sparks controversy, and SEOUL TRAIN is no exception.
What are your three favorite films?
Jim: Kind of a quirky list, but Lawrence of Arabia, Memento and Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
Aaron Lubarsky [co-director/editor of SEOUL TRAIN]
What sparks your creativity?
The nexus of human rights and geopolitics