North Korea is one of the world's most isolated nations. For sixty years, North Koreans have been governed by a totalitarian regime that controls all information entering and leaving the country. A cult of personality surrounds its two recent leaders: first, Kim Il Sung, and now his son, Kim Jong Il. For Kim Jong Il's 46th birthday, a hybrid red begonia named kimjongilia was created, symbolizing wisdom, love, justice, and peace. The film draws its name from the rarefied flower and reveals the extraordinary stories told by survivors of North Korea's vast prison camps, of devastating famine, and of every kind of repression. All of the interviews featured took place in South Korea, where the defectors now live. Their experiences are interspersed with archival footage of North Korean propaganda films and original scenes that illuminate the contours of daily life for a people whose every action is monitored and whose every thought could bring official retribution. Along with the survivors' stories, Kimjongilia examines the mass illusion possible under totalitarianism and the human rights abuses required to maintain that illusion. Ultimately, the defectors are inspiring, for despite the extremes they have suffered, they still hold out hope for a better future.

Director's Statement

From the moment I first heard Kang Chol-hwan's story of childhood imprisonment in a concentration camp, I knew I had to do something to expose the staggering crimes against humanity taking place in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (the DPRK). The idea of the existence of concentration camps in today's world was simply unacceptable. I started by trying to make a dramatic feature based on Kang's story, but in 2006, I decided to transform the film into a documentary. The interviews were mind-boggling. I developed the deepest respect for these survivors rebuilding their lives, but willing to share their painful pasts. At the same time, another story began to emerge - a cautionary tale of an entire nation held captive by mass repression and forced cult worship.

Since there is almost no pertinent footage from inside the DPRK, I searched for new ways to present this powerful material. Drawing on my background in the theatre, I wove performance into the narrative for its emotional impact, and North Korea's own operatic propaganda for its fantastic contrast to the defectors' testimony. The result is a film that may push the boundaries of documentary filmmaking, but hopefully never diminishes the tremendous emotional power of these courageous refugees.

Historical Timeline

Period Description
1910 Japan colonizes Korea
1913 Kim II Sung born to Christian family. His grandfather was a Protestant minister.
1919-1940 Freedom fighters, aided by the Church, resist the Japanese.
1932 Kim II Sung joins the resistance and adopts communism.
1935 The Japanese put a price on Kim Il Sung's head.
1941 Kim II Sung flees to the Soviet Union
1945 the Allies defeat Japan and free Korea, but the Soviets and the US divide it along the 38th parallel.
1945 Kim II Sung returns to North Korea with the Soviets.
1948 Kim II Sung founds the Democratic People's Republic of Korea as a Marxist state.
1950 North Korea attacks South Korea
1950-1953 Korean War, with the US-led UN defending the South and the Soviet Union and China aiding the North. The war brings widespread destruction and death on both sides.
1953 Armistice declared, Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) established on the 38th parallel, no peace treaty. North Korean propaganda blames the entire war on the American Imperialists.
1953-1970's Kim II Sung and the Korean Workers Party rebuild North Korea with the intent of establishing a Workers' Paradise.
late 1980's Soviet aid dries up and NK economy, already in bad shape, plummets.

Main Characters

Kang Chol-hwan: His grandfather was arrested for an unknown crime. The DPRK's policy of purging three generations for a "political" crime meant that Kang, his grandmother, father, uncles, and little sister were taken to Yodok prison camp. He was nine years old and spent the next ten years there. He got to South Korea in 1992 and was the first to expose and verify the existence of the prison camps.

Shin Dong-hyuk: He was born in a prison camp and raised to be a slave. He knew nothing of the outside world until a new prisoner from Pyongyang told stories about the food he used to eat. Shin began to feel the camp was unbearable and finally made a run for it, surviving the electrified fence, while his friend was electrocuted. He got to South Korea in 2006, at the age of 24.

Mrs. Kim: She was a former dancer whose best friend became Kim Jong Il's lover. Her presumed knowledge of the affair was enough to send her and her family to the camps. Of her parents, four children, and husband, only one son survives, in a coma, as a result of violent torture. In her 70's now, Mrs. Kim is passionate about freeing the North Koreans.

Lee Shin: was kidnapped and sold into slavery in China when she tried to defect. She had already suffered from the flaw of "impure bloodlines" in NK. Though a talented singer, she was given little opportunity because her voice was deemed "capitalist." She escaped her owner and made a run for the South Korean embassy in Beijing in 2002.

Byeon Ok-soon: During the Great Famine, Ok-soon was foraging for bark and roots to eat when she contracted typhoid fever. Her family was waiting helplessly for her to die when her brother stepped in. He carried her on his back into China to seek medical treatment. Her brother began to sneak back and forth across the border to bring food to his parents back in North Korea. He was caught and publicly executed.

Kim Cheol-woong: An elite concert pianist who couldn't stand that he was forbidden to play the music he wanted, he escaped into China in 2001, and eventually got to South Korea with the help of Christian missionaries.


Green Garnet Productions and The Documentary Channel Present KIMJONGILIA:

Producer/DirectorN.C. Heikin
EditorsPeterson Almeida & Mary Lampson
CinematographerKyle Saylors
Animation & GraphicsWilhelm Ogterop
Original MusicMichael Gordon
Consulting EditorKate Amend
Executive ProducerMike Figgis
Executive ProducerJames Egan
ProducersNC Heikin, Robert Pepin, Young-sun Cho & David Novack
Co-producersSu Kim, The Saylors Brothers & Ellen Kesend
Copyright Green Garnet Productions LLC
Supported byThe Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program

N.C Heikin - Director

N.C. Heikin studied dance and theatre at Sarah Lawrence College and immediately after graduation began working at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, with Wilford Leach and Andrei Serban, among others. She created the title role in La Mama's renowned production "Carmilla", a Victorian vampire rock-opera. Also at La Mama, she created a series of interdisciplinary performance pieces, shown in New York City and at theatre festivals around the world. As guest director of the Native American Theatre ensemble, she collaborated with Peter Brook on a series of workshops with his company, as well as creating, with the ensemble, "Coyote Tracks", a musical based on the Coyote legends. Musical theatre writing credits include "Non Pasquale", presented at the Delacorte Theatre, Central Park, under the auspices of the New York Shakespeare Festival/Joseph Papp, and directed by Tony-winner Wilford Leach. In 1986 she began screenwriting with commissions from Paramount and Disney and has since done movies for TV and episodic work. Heikin made her film directing debut in 2004, with her prize-winning narrative short, mañana, which debuted on Indiepix in May 2008. Kimjongilia is her first documentary. It received a grant from the Sundance Institute documentary Film Program, and was invited to the Sundance Story & Edit Lab in June 2008.

From left to right: Peterson Almeida, Wilhelm Ogterop & Mary Lampson

Peterson Almeida - Editor

Peterson Almeida studied art, theatre and philosophy at the University of Sao Paolo in Brazil. His series of drawings in ink and acrylic won 2nd prize at the new Talent Exhibit at Thomas Cohn Gallery in Sao Paolo. In 2003, he began making documentaries for Brazilian TV and is currently freelancing in France. His main credits include: Guitars of Brazil, Terre de Sao Paolo, Sao Paulo Suite (director and editor) Duofel (DVD), and Duofel Live, Arena Conte l'Arene 50 ans, all broadcast on TV cultura-Bresil. In France, Almeida directed and edited Un Temple a la Gloire du Cheval, a documentary on the Great Stables of Chantilly, as they prepare for a horse show, before starting to work on Kimjongilia.

Mary Lampson - Editor

Mary Lampson is an award-winning independent documentary filmmaker and editor. She co-edited the Academy Award-winning documentary Harlan County USA, and edited many other independently produced documentary features. Lampson has worked with Emile de Antonio, Ricky Leacock, and D.A. Pennebaker. She also produced and directed Until She Talks, a short dramatic film acquired by PBS for American Playhouse, and subsequently garnering prizes at the Mannheim and Athens film festivals, as well as winning a CINE Golden Eagle and Blue Ribbon. Lampson has produced more than 25 short live-action films for "Sesame Street" and teaches filmmaking to children as an artist-in-residence in public schools. Most recently, she worked with Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert on the feature documentary A Lion in the House, which screened at Sundance 2006 and won a Special Jury Citation at Full Frame and the Audience Award at Hot Docs; Rain in a Dry Land, Anne Makepeace's latest film which was at the Sundance Lab in 2005 and opened Independent Lens 2007; and co-edited on Trouble the Water, which won the Sundance 2008 Documentary Grand Jury Prize.

Wilhelm Ogterop - Animation

Wilhelm Ogterop is originally from South Africa where he studied graphic design and specialized in computer animation. He worked for close to four years on television and video graphics before starting to work as lead animator in the computer games industry on titles like "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "James Bond". He is also involved in independent film and produces his own short animations.

Kyle Saylors - Cinematographer

Kyle Saylors is co-founder of Saylors Brothers Entertainment. He has independently produced or directed animation, features, documentaries, and television projects. Saylors started early, promoting concerts like Galveston Island Spring Break Concert Series. He went on to produce content or freelance for NBC Sports, FOX, PAX, MTV, BET, Super Bowl Pre-Game Special, and more. He produced or directed music videos with Sony, Epic Records, Master P, Grammy winners, and others. His projects have also been featured on "MTV's Most Expensive Music Videos", Forbes, Time Magazine, and Newsweek. Current projects include Facing the Fat (documentary following world's longest fast), Hollywood on Fire (Jane Russell, Eric Close) and "Inspired Ambition", (prime-time syndicated reality series airing on FamilyNet).

Michael Gordon - Composer

Michael Gordon's influences include underground New York rock bands and formal training in composition at Yale with Martin Bresnick. He is one of the founders and artistic directors of New York's Bang on a Can Festival. His work, sometimes called post-minimalist, embraces dissonance, "irrational" rhythm, modality and pop culture. Among his many works are an opera, The Carbon Copy Building, in collaboration with comic book artist Ben Katchor, which won a 200 OBIE award, and Decasia, a large-scale symphony with projections commissioned by Europaischer Musikmonat for the Basel Sinfonettia, which was later staged by the Ridge Theater and subsequently made into a film (2002 Sundance Film Festival.) He has recorded extensively, including the recent CD Light is Calling on Nonesuch.

Stills and Captions

Click on the images to see a high resolution version available for download!

Still of animation based on North Korean painting of Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il, as seen in KIMJONGILIA, directed by N.C. Heikin

Photo courtesy of Green Garnet Productions

Still of archival footage from North Korean opera, as seen in KIMJONGILIA, directed by N.C. Heikin

Photo courtesy of Green Garnet Productions

Former North Korean army captain Park Myung-ho, as seen in KIMJONGILIA, directed by N.C. Heikin

Photo courtesy of Green Garnet Productions

North Korean prison camp survivor Shin Dong-hyuk, as seen in KIMJONGILIA, directed by N.C. Heikin

Photo courtesy of Green Garnet Productions

Still of scene from North Korean propaganda movie, as seen in KIMJONGILIA, directed by N.C. Heikin

Photo courtesy of Green Garnet Productions

Still of dancer Yumi Ahn, as seen in KIMJONGILIA directed by N.C. Heikin

Photo courtesy of Green Garnet Productions

NC Heikin with Yumi Ahn

Photo courtesy of Green Garnet Productions

KIMJONGILIA director N.C. Heikin

Photo credit: Robert Pepin


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