Torture. Rape. Cannibalism. Abortion. Suicide.

Over the next week I’m seeing about a half dozen horror flicks at the Tribeca Film Festival, but I doubt I’ll see one more terrifying than this documentary.

Getting out of critic mode for a second I’d like to ask you all a question- how many of you are aware that there are concentration camps in operation in North Korea? Camps that hold hundreds of thousands of so-called political prisoners, most of whom never make it out alive?

They exist. When someone is found guilty of a crime (not by a trial, mind you), there’s a three generation rule where the prisoner’s parents and children are put away as well, guilty of association. Entire families fight to survive there simply because one of them spoke badly about leader Kim Jong-Il.

Many Koreans (North and South alike) either don’t know about the camps, or try to ignore their existence. It’s absolutely terrifying, and the fact that this is allowed to go on shows that the world truly hasn’t learned from its past.

While the subject matter on its own is strong enough to keep your interest, Andrzej Fidyk has made an incredibly powerful film here. Of course he wasn’t allowed access to North Korea, so he shines a light on these horrors in the only way he can- by talking to people who have escaped from North Korea to South Korea (usually through China) and had some relationship to the camps. Yodok Camp is the one that is focused on, and apparently the only one that people are ever released from. We hear from multiple former prisoners… as well as a guard who was later made into a prisoner after a relation of his committed a crime against the state.

The interesting thing here is the way this information is revealed to us. Spurned on by North Korea’s incredibly lavish and choreographed celebrations (like this or this) Fidyk talks with Jung Sung San, a former prisoner of Yodok whose only crime was listening to South Korean radio about Kim Il Sung’s death, about creating a musical. And this is the focus of the doc- a haunting and strangely beautiful musical about life in a concentration camp. It opened in South Korean and even made its way to the US in 2006.

It’s disconcerting to see amazingly lush visuals from the musical (along with footage of families and children having fun in Seoul) while people tell horrific stories of beatings, murders and rapes. This kind of juxtaposition is prevalent throughout the film, perhaps making it a bit easier to take, but also a reminder of how vastly different both Koreas are.

The film follows the preparation for the musical as they bring many former North Koreans to contribute their stories and memories to the production. Their stories will break your heart and infuriate you- how is this allowed to go on, in this day and age? What does it take for someone to finally step up and do something about it?

Horrifying, depressing, but ultimately leaving you with a feeling of hope that things will change and people will stand up for others in need, Yodok Stories is an important film. When you watch something like this you can’t just sit back and pretend
there’s nothing going on. You can’t unsee the images or forget the

This is why everyone needs to see it.

9 out of 10