Mrs. Kim's parents, husband and children died from persecution and starvation. All because she knew Kim Jong Il's mistress. Her last son survives, but in a torture-induced coma at the hands of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
When Texas-based, upstart indie film producer Kyle Saylors read Kim's story, and the stories of other survivors in filmmaker N.C. Heikin's script, he knew he had to work with her to make Kimjongilia, one of this year's Windrider Film Forum selections.
The film takes its name from the hybrid begonia commissioned for Kim Jong Il's 46th birthday. When you juxtapose this botanic symbol of wisdom, love, justice and peace with the totalitarian policies and oppression of North Korea's famously cruel dictator, it makes for perfect irony.
Committing that irony to celluloid appealed to Heikin, who began her career as a theater actress and director/choreographer in New York, then earned attention for her 2005 indie film Mañana. Inspired by survivor Kang Chol-hwan's tale of childhood imprisonment in a concentration camp, Heikin began writing a dramatic script based on Kang's life. But after collaborating with Saylors, whom she met at a film festival, she realized a full-length feature on North Korea would be a hard sell in a post-Communist world.
The two decided instead to film North Korean defectors telling their stories. From that point, Saylors says, the project "took on a soaring life of its own. We had no idea it would be so popular, but it's gotten into every major film festival in the world, including this year's Sundance."
(Kimjongilia is on the IDA DocuWeeks Theatrical Documentary Showcase shortlist, a series of documentaries screened for the Oscars in Los Angeles during July and August.)
Though she could have contented herself with making a survivor documentary, Heikin wanted an artistic film. She applied her theatrical background, interlacing performance and the DPRK's propaganda with the survivors' stories to create contrast.
"Without limiting the film, we found creative ways to hide the faces of people whose families might be killed if their identities were known," says Saylors, who moved to Nashville, Tenn., in May. He and Heikin believe their documentary, while slightly unorthodox for the genre, gives a powerful voice to the victims of Kim Jong Il's regime.
Fittingly, Kimjongilia will screen with Deface, director John Arlotto's short film about a North Korean father who finds uncommon meaning in life after his daughter is killed. The 20-minute film has won many awards, including Best Narrative Short at the 2007 Austin Film Festival, catapulting the young writer/director from his fine-art background solidly into the film business.
Both Saylors and Arlotto appreciate Windrider's unique setup (pairing the films and having the audience discussion with filmmakers afterward) because it provides an opportunity to alter America's perceptions about North Korea. "Most people are ignorant about what's happening there, and I was ignorant, too, before I became involved with this project," says Saylors.
Arlotto thinks the two movies and discussion following will erase the view that reduces North Korea to nothing more than America's newest enemy: "I hope my movie will inspire viewers to do research on North Korea and become involved in seeking justice for its people."
Much lighter, but no less provocative, is Windrider's opening documentary, The Real Dirt on Farmer John. It tells the story of Midwestern farmer's son John Peterson, a goofball artist and hippie his Illinois community wants to murder — literally, it turns out.
Multiple catastrophes ultimately send Peterson wandering through Mexico, a lost soul, isolated from his roots and his homeland. Odd and wonderful things happen, prompting Peterson to return home and start Angelic Organics, today one of the largest community-supported agriculture farms in the United States.
Shot by his longtime friend, indie filmmaker and cinematographer Taggart Siegel, in various media over 25 years, Real Dirt intimately documents Peterson's journey through a historically rich time of political polarization and violence, to illustrate how one outcast's vision and tenacity can create something beautiful and new from tradition.
"This movie is all about what's possible in the face of situations that seem impossible," says Will Stoller-Lee, Windrider Film Forum's chair. "It provides very practical ways for people to be involved in making a difference."