The name Pastor Kim comes up early in Madeleine Gavin’s Beyond Utopia. A gentle, aching man, Pastor Kim tells Gavin he has ensured the escape of over 1,000 people from North Korea in the last 10 years. He’s one of the leaders of this Underground Railroad in the area, leading defectors through rivers, mountains, and forests with rods in his neck, rolled ankles, and multiple surgeries plaguing his physical health over the years. Kim becomes the doc’s lynchpin, the character who provides light to the defectors and audience. In short: he’s a hero.
Gavin’s doc looks at the people Kim attempts to help––specifically three generations of a family attempting to flee together and the son of a woman who’s already out. The film intersperses footage taken by the defectors, a few talking heads, animated reimaginings of what happens to defectors, and archival material from North Korea. Even though Beyond Utopia‘s length comes in at a little under two hours, it moves at breakneck speed as Gavin follows the journey of this family. The next hurdle comes and then the next hurdle comes and the pattern repeats until they’re free or a much-worse outcome befalls them.
Beyond Utopia will likely horrify viewers. The footage inside North Korea is filled with propaganda, beatings, severe poverty, and unimaginable violence. Dimly lit, usually in the middle of desolation, the escape footage consistently heightens the film, reminding one of the real-world stakes, of the people I desperately hoped would survive. And Kim remains there to talk the subjects, and the audience, through all of it. A step-by-step guide to how someone might be able to escape North Korea, Beyond Utopia couldn’t be more riveting.
The director decides to focus considerable energy on the indoctrination of the North Korean population and the reverence they pay their leader, Kim Jong Un. Gavin shows clips of children singing about the hatred of Americans and the utopian nature of their country, using prominent defector and activist Hyeonseo Lee as the spokesperson for all general questions about the culture. This interview, interspersed with the more raw footage, sheds light on the world these defectors need to leave and the community they’re abandoning.
It leads to a moral dilemma I hadn’t considered. What happens to those left behind? To the family members, the friends, the coworkers? This question looms large for the mother hoping to again see her son: a young man caught while crossing the river from North Korea into China, put into an internment camp, and broken beyond belief. Even those who escape have reservations about the rest of the population. They miss them. They wish they could help. Guilt and freedom intermix for some, if not all, of these defectors. Gavin’s masterstroke is allowing these questions to simmer below the surface of her documentary, to create moral uncertainty in a film with clear heroes and villains.
The urgency in Beyond Utopia cannot ever be understated. The consequences of the risks taken by these people––both the defectors and Pastor Kim––cannot be undervalued. Each risks everything in this journey. And Gavin remains there to document, to explain, to give others a peek into the reverberations of freedom. The film haunts its viewers, giving a glimpse into a rarely seen culture and an unseen journey that results in only life-giving or life-taking outcomes. Beyond Utopia is a must-see historical and human document.
Beyond Utopia opens in theaters on November 3.