Filmmaker Madeleine Gavin was skeptical when producers first approached her with the idea of making a documentary about North Korean defectors. She wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about the country and wondered if she was the right person for the project.
Few people know much about the modern-day hermit kingdom, a secretive nuclear power that exerts near-total control over its population with propaganda, government killings, and brutal labor camps.
But as Gavin dug deeper into the subject, she became “obsessed,” she said, eventually finding a way into the story through Seungeun Kim, a South Korean pastor who by his own count has helped more than 1,000 defectors escape over the past 24 years.
“The more I learned, the more I realized that there was nothing really out there that gave voice to the people of North Korea,” Gavin said recently, adding she came across some of Kim’s hidden camera footage online. “When he came to trust us, he said, ‘I want you to embed with the next two escapes.’”
The resulting documentary, “Beyond Utopia,” is an astonishing film that follows Kim as he coordinates one man’s escape from inside North Korea, while also shepherding a family of five to safety, a grueling odyssey that spans thousands of miles across several countries.
The film, which has collected a variety of festival awards this year, screens at the Brattle Theatre Saturday as part of the GlobeDocs Film Festival. It will also have a limited run at West Newton Cinema in early November.
In an extraordinary early scene, Kim is contacted by someone in his network about the Rohs, a family of defectors found wandering the mountains near China’s border with North Korea. The family, which includes two young girls, their parents, and their elderly grandmother, pleads with Kim for assistance in a cellphone video shot at a farm near the border.
“Pastor, I beg for your help,” the father says into the camera. “Please help us to live.”
The film is full of these dramatic moments. Using cameras Kim has dispersed along his underground railroad, video chats, and video shot by brokers and family members on the ground, the filmmakers take viewers on the Rohs’ harrowing journey, traveling roads, hiking through forests, and traversing mountains as they trek across China, Vietnam, and Laos — countries that often deport defectors back to North Korea where they’re certain to face harsh punishment.
“We took all of our cues from Pastor Kim,” said Gavin, whose film crew accompanied the family through Vietnam and Laos. “We had no idea what was going to happen.”
The work has taken a physical and emotional toll on Kim, who heads South Korea’s Caleb Mission church. He’s had several back surgeries, once breaking his neck during a rescue, and his son died while Kim was out helping a defector.
“At the time, my wife and I promised that we will devote our lives even more to rescuing those people,” Kim, whose wife is North Korean, said through an interpreter during a recent interview.
Along the way, the film creates a vivid portrait of life inside North Korea, where children are taught they live in utopia, but where, as the film’s interviewees recount, people are required to exhibit dust-free portraits of the ruling family in their homes, citizens in custody are brutally tortured, and, since the country lacks infrastructure, people must store their own feces, delivering it to the government for fertilizer.
“Imagine waking up one day and realizing you were born on a completely different planet, and everything you learned was a lie,” one interviewee, the prominent defector Hyeonseo Lee, says in the film. She goes on to describe the realization that one’s fellow countrymen are brainwashed, the country’s history is fabricated, and its heroes are actually “monstrous villains.”
“This is like the plot to a science-fiction novel,” Hyeonseo Lee, author of the memoir “The Girl with Seven Names,” says in the film, “but it’s the insane reality for North Koreans.”
The other half of “Beyond Utopia” follows Soyeon Lee, a North Korean defector who seeks Kim’s assistance to smuggle her son out of the country.
The mother, who hasn’t seen her son in years, at one point purchases clothes so he’ll be less conspicuous as he travels through China.
“I wonder if they will even fit him,” she tells the filmmakers. “I don’t know how big he has become.”
Ultimately, the escape fails, and Soyeon Lee must rely on a shady network inside North Korea to learn her son’s fate.
In an interview, she said she’s been able to confirm her son is alive and in a North Korean detention camp.
“I obviously had a million different thoughts about participating in this film,” she said through an interpreter. “My small hope is that through this movie I will one day have a meal with my son, as normal people do.”