BEYOND UTOPIA – Finding Freedom

Roh family in BEYOND UTOPIA
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BEYOND UTOPIA. a film by Madeleine Gavin, Director and Editor, opens in theaters on November 3rd. It is a remarkable film – suspenseful, powerful, and spell-binding.

The film was an Audience Award Winner at the Sundance Film Festival 2023.

“This is a film you haven’t seen before from a place you’ll never visit, a first-class example of bravery and reportage melding into an filmed testament.”– Finn Halligan, Screen International


Watching the film was like opening a door to North Korea-breathtaking and riveting, BEYOND UTOPIA follows various individuals as they attempt to flee North Korea, one of the most oppressive places on Earth. Several threads run through the film- a mother attempting to bring her son to freedom, a family attempting to flee North Korea and find a life that is free as a group, and at the center is Pastor Kim who has found ways to help many escape to freedom. I was especially moved listening to their description of a land they grew up believing was a paradise juxtaposed by snippets of film depicting what it was actually like.

It felt like I was traveling and in great danger watching the dangerous journey of a family of five that included an elderly grandmother and small children through hostile mountains of China and through southeast Asia. It was intense and spellbinding. Their guide to freedom, Pastor Kim, was a brave and committed man.


Interviews with Pastor Kim were fascinating and inspiring.  Filming was completed just before COVID-19 when all escape routes closed. It is an important film as parts of our world fights to hold on to freedom.

MADELEINE GAVIN – DIRECTOR AND EDITOR generously shared her answers to questions about puzzling aspects of the film.

How did you obtain the hidden camera footage of life inside North Korea?

While I was doing initial research and figuring out what this movie could be, I discovered a lot of hidden camera footage on the internet, much of which came from a man named Jiro in Japan whose network began smuggling cameras into North Korea around the time of the famine in the 1990s. I used some of his footage in the movie. Pastor Kim’s network also smuggles cameras into the country, and, interestingly, I discovered this footage before I even met Pastor Kim. Most of the hidden camera footage in the film comes from his network. This footage is shot by incredibly courageous North Koreans who risk their lives in an effort to expose the reality of their country to the outside world.

What was your best resource for learning about the North Korean people?

There were several, but Barbara Demick’s book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea is a standout. She is one of a few Western journalists covering the country who has interviewed defectors on their lives inside North Korea. She’s a beautiful writer and the book offers palpable insight into the people how vital and strong they are in spite of the massive control from the Kim regime. The irony is, most of our news media shows us exactly what the Kim regime wants to show us – the missiles, parades etc. That is absolutely insane. To the extent that we see North Koreans depicted at all, it seems to be as one of two extremes: either as an anonymous mass listless from lack of food or as hearty robotic figures marching in unison. We don’t see people with dreams, fears, passions or even thoughts – all qualities that make us human.

BEYOND UTOPIA- trying to reach her son

Pastor Kim also becomes a major character and force in the movie. How did you meet him?

When we started traveling to South Korea, little by little, things began opening up all around us. This culminated in meeting Pastor Kim, one of the most prominent members of the Underground Railroad for defectors. Pastor Kim is incredibly protective of his networks and of the people he’s trying to help rescue. As a result, it took many months to get to know him and to gain his trust. Once that happened, however, Pastor Kim helped us take the project to unimaginable places. Ultimately, he gave us the opportunity to embed with and document two attempts at defection. No other film has ever entered that world the way we were able to and Pastor Kim was central to this happening.

How did you come to embed yourself with the Roh family as they journeyed from North Korea to Thailand?

After the Rohs fled North Korea and crossed the river into China, they roamed Changbai Mountain for five days with no idea where they were or where they were going. Eventually they came upon a farmer who contacted someone in Pastor Kim’s network, who in turn contacted Pastor Kim himself. Pastor Kim’s church is one of several that raises money to help defectors and PK asked his church if they would fund the family’s escape attempt. As always, it was a very dangerous mission, one made all the more dangerous by the fact that there were five defectors (more than the usual defection) and by the fact that there were young children and an elderly grandmother involved. Ultimately, more than 50 brokers were involved in the family’s escape across multiple countries.

Produced by: Sue Mi Terry, Jana Edelbaum and Rachel Cohen 

Film Subjects: Hyeonseo Lee, Pastor Seungeun Kim, Soyeon Lee, Sue Mi Terry, Barbara Demick, Gwang Il Jung, Jean Lee, Sokeel Park, Sunok Park, Jinhae Roh, Jinpyeong Roh, Yonggil Roh, Yeongbok Woo, Esther Park, Hyukchang Wu, Yeonghee Woo, and Cheongmi Woo

2023 / 115 minutes

This is a rare film that reached me deeply and opened my eyes to a different world. 

Photos are courtesy of BEYOND UTOPIA


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