Families record their journey out of North Korea in "Beyond Utopia." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Jan. 29 (UPI) -- Beyond Utopia, which won the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, is a remarkable firsthand look at refugees escaping North Korea. With footage captured by people on the journey and operatives helping them, the film captures real families' struggles.
Hyeonseo Lee has made the journey from North Korea through China to escape. Soyeon Lee is trying to get her son out of North Korea and the Ro family is on their journey just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the route through the Yalu River.
Pastor Seungeun Kim leads a team of brokers helping refugees circumvent North Korean surveillance to escape. From emotional videos of families begging him for help to text messages tracing incidents they could not capture on camera, Beyond Utopia conveys the harrowing journey.
After establishing the three main stories, about 30 minutes in Beyond Utopia explains the history of North and South Korea from Stalin to the Kim regime. Archival footage shows some historical events and propaganda painting America and South Korea as enemies.
Soyeon's mother remains influenced by that propaganda. Soyeon can only hear about her mother's status from a friend who is able to check on her.
The Beyond Utopia film crew actually interviews Soyeon's mother in her home though. No matter how they reassure her she can speak freely, the viewer can see how shaken the elderly woman is, refusing to say anything that could be construed as criticism of Kim Jong-un.
Beyond Utopia tracks the refugees' ongoing journeys on a map. Hidden camera footage of the border and gulags remind the viewer what dangers these families face if they're caught.
Obviously, neither director Madeleine Gavin nor Pastor Kim himself knew how these stories would turn out when they began. Beyond Utopia includes some happy moments of relief when people finally connect with missing loved ones after day.
Some of the subjects make it to freedom and others have more tragic outcomes. These are just three of the stories of unsung heroism that deserve to be shared with the world.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.