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Before traveling around the world for 14 months filming "Seoul Train," Minturn businessman Jim Butterworth and Vail Valley Medical Center nurse Lisa Sleeth had never touched a camcorder.
Now, whether or not the pair become the next Michael Moore remains to be seen.
If the rest of the world's response to the documentary, which chronicles the plight of North Korean refugees, is similar to that of the small crowd watching a preview of the film at the Vilar Center Thursday night during the Beaver Creek Film Festival, they're on their way.
Just over a year ago, Sleeth and Butterworth were a couple of people in a small audience not unlike the one gathered at "Seoul Train" Thursday. They were listening to a Vail Symposium presentation by New York Times reporter Jim Brooke. Brooke spoke about his friend Seok Jae-hyun, a contract photographer at the Times who was arrested in China while photographing North Korean refugees and placed in a Chinese military prison for 14 months. That's when the spark started and when "Seoul Train" made its first chug.
The 55-minute film begins with footage of soldiers patrolling the North Korean border, where Sleeth and Butterworth lingered off and on for two months among the AK-47-wielding, stone-faced troops. The scene then goes to a spy-cam portrayal of the famine in North Korea, showing filthy children digging through mud for something edible. (Butterworth said 3 million North Koreans have died in the last 10 years due to the food crisis.) Then, a group of refugees in China, led by South Korean Chun Ki-won - a prominent underground railroad activist - attempt to flee to freedom in Mongolia. In China, refugees live in constant fear of capture by the Chinese government, whose automatic procedure is to return them immediately to their native land, where they face various degrees of torture and even death in political prisoner camps. The group consists of Chun, two other activists and 12 refugees, who say little more than that their mission is to survive.
In addition to their time spent filming and researching on the North Korean border in South Korea and China, Sleeth and Butterworth made their way to a North Korea Freedom Coalition rally in Warsaw, Poland, where they interviewed key Coalition activist Suzanne Scholte as well as the International Secretary of Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres). Then, they made their way to Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss the issue with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. There, the filmmakers unveil the lack of force and passion behind the organization, whose purpose is to intervene when human beings face predicaments like the North Koreans in China. The film's exploitation of the organizations' uselessness in the situation is staggering. It's reminiscent of Michael Moore but without the obvious leftist slant. The pair also interview U.S. congressmen, as well as underground railroad activists responsible for the fate of several of the North Koreans trying to escape from China.
The most wrenching scene in the film is that involving Han-Mi, a 2-year-old Korean girl whose refugee family attempts a calculated escape through the gates of the Japanese consulate in China. The outcome filmgoers must see for themselves.
The ultimate injustice chronicled in "Seoul Train" is that suffered by the MoFA Seven - a group of well-spoken and educated refugees in China who do everything by the book. They go through all of the presumed bureaucratic necessities in requesting asylum from the Chinese government. Individually, the seven carefully prepare letters, paperwork and banners pleading for liberty, but when they go to present their case at the entrance of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, their affair is, to put it lightly, not really considered.
Despite exposing the need for aid for North Koreans, the film also discloses the appalling carelessness of the Chinese government, something that Sleeth and Butterworth hope to exploit before Beijing hosts the 2008 Olympic Games. The negligence of the South Korean government to the refugee issue is also conveyed. Not only in the film, but also in the fact that when Sleeth and Butterworth submitted "Seoul Train" as an entry for the Pusan, South Korea, International Film Festival, they were told it never arrived.
But the film will arrive and will certainly make an impact elsewhere. And if that impact hits as hard as the filmmakers hope it will, the waves will ripple and crash over those trying to ignore the issue.
Sleeth and Butterworth are in the finishing stages of completing their Web site, http://www.seoultrain.com. The site will contain contacts for activists groups and resources for how film audiences can help.
"We look at the film as an advertisement," Butterworth said. "The Web site is really where the grass-roots efforts start. The film is about spreading the word and getting people rowled up."
The formula ran its course Thursday. Audience members had several impassioned questions for Sleeth and Butterworth following the film.
Dozens of beaming viewers wanted to shake hands and thank Sleeth and Butterworth for how moved they were by "Seoul Train." After the screening, when nearly everyone had filed out the door, Vilar Center staff tapped Butterworth on the shoulder and handed him a stack of cash donations that was too large to fit in his pocket.
On Nov. 5, the film will make its official premiere, but Sleeth and Butterworth cannot disclose at which major film festival until Oct. 6. The objective is to have as many people see it as possible. The filmmakers will submit it to local movie theaters, to international and Hollywood film festivals, television networks and, most importantly, to key international policy-makers.
"It's 55 minutes of 100 hours of footage," Sleeth said. "North Korea is being looked at from the angle of protecting the U.S. from weapons of mass destruction. We want to put human rights issues on the negotiation table as well."
September 17, 2004
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