What being detained in North Korea taught Euna Lee about documentary film-making

In March 2009 Euna Lee’s life changed in a heartbeat. While shooting a human trafficking documentary at the border between China and North Korea, the filmmaker was captured by North Korean soldiers and later sentenced to 12 years hard labour.

As the Special Assistant for Voice of America’s Korean Service told delegates at the FIPP World Media Congress 2020, it was a traumatic experienced that taught her the importance of using film to highlight global issues.

“The content in documentaries can change your attitude, opinion and inspire us,” she said. “It connects viewers globally and helps them understand different perspectives. It’s a powerful tool and an effective way to share important information. You can go where qualitative analysis can’t go – out heart. It can inspire people to make a change.”


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Learning lessons the hard way

Lee was inspired to take up the plight of North Korean defectors by 2004 documentary Seoul Train – a heart-rendering look at the dangers faced by those trying to flee to or through China. While filming with fellow journalist Laura Ling and a fixer along a river on the Chinese/North Korea border they were confronted by two North Korean soldiers. While the trio managed to flee to Chinese soil, Lee and Ling were taken to an army base in North Korea. It was a terrifying and educational experience.

“As I walked into the army base, my head was spinning with worse case scenarios,” she recalled. “An officer came out of an office building and I thought: ‘Oh no’. But he gave me his winter coat. Until then I didn’t realise I was wearing a thin sweater and my teeth were chattering after leaving my coat at the river. It was an odd experience. I grew up in South Korea and heard propaganda towards North Korea and how soldiers were brutally cruel. I think at some point I had dehumanised North Korean people.”

The journalists were sent to Pyongyang for interrogation and eventually sentenced to 12 years in a labour camp – two years for trespassing and 10 years for “hostile acts” as they were working on a documentary about the dark side of North Korea. While Lee sat in her cell waiting to be transferred, she turned her attention to the two female guards watching her around the clock.

“One was studying to be a translator and the other had a beautiful voice,” she said. “They asked me about life in the US – the food, clothes, what we do on holidays. They wanted their kids to go to a good college for a better future. We had so many similarities and it was the first time that I felt that North Korea and South Korea were one country. Whether it was an oppressed country or a free country, curiosity was human nature and brings a lot of questions about the world you don’t know. The way the guards and officers interacted – it was like I was watching character-driven stories from a very close position. It changed my perspective of people in North Korea.”

After being detained for 140 days, Lee and Ling were pardoned and released following a special humanitarian visit by former US President Bill Clinton. As Lee returned to the US she was determined to use what she had learnt in North Korea to work on as many character-driven stories as possible.

Character-driven stories is a consistent cause of oxytocin synthesis. That’s why the viewers connect with the lives of the characters and it’s how this type of stories spread an emotional response to a larger cause society should be paying attention to.

Characters are key

“For a documentary to truly connect with viewers it has to be character driven, she said. “These sorts of documentaries engage better and connects viewers to our universal commonalities. If you are watching a documentary about a mom fighting for her child you can emotionally connect with the viewer and their dilemma. Character-driven stories often bring the viewer to international news, big events or undercover issues they didn’t know about.”

Lee revealed that there are scientific reasons why character-driven stories strike such a chord with viewers. Citing a Harvard Business Review study she pointed out that the brain produces stress hormone cortisol during tense moments in a story which helps us to focus. It also releases oxytocin, the feel-good hormone, during the happy moments, which promotes empathy and connection.

“Character-driven stories is a consistent cause of oxytocin synthesis,” Lee said. “That’s why the viewers connect with the lives of the characters and it’s how this type of stories spread an emotional response to a larger cause society should be paying attention to.”

A lot of reporters are so focused on the story you often forget you are at risk at any moment.

Bruised but not broken

Lee’s experience highlighted the dangers many journalists face when working in troubled parts of the world. For Lee, the risk is worth it.

“A lot of reporters are so focused on the story you often forget you are at risk at any moment,” she said. “I do think about colleagues who have lost their lives and those who are still out there. This is our job – to tell stories. Otherwise people cannot get this information and society suffers.”

For publishers thinking about moving into making documentaries, Lee advises they start small. “It’s tough because for viewers to really understand an issue, you have to spend a long time – sometimes more than a year – making a documentary,” she said. “What we do is produce shorter content to show our viewer it’s an interesting subject and if they engage with it then we discuss a longer form of documentary.”

She also stressed that, in world where mobile phones can be used to shoot films, production values are not the be all and end all.

“I watched a film about competitive medical school students in India and most of the footage was shot with home video,” she said. “Because the story was so interesting I watched it all the way through. Good characters and interesting stories are what drive documentaries.”

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