Already the film appears to have had an effect. In April they flew to Washington, D.C. for a screening before a packed house of Congressional aides in the Senate House auditorium. Two weeks ago the House passed HR 4011, an act dealing with human rights abuses in North Korean and China. The bill has been forwarded to the Senate.”We’re getting lots of e-mails from that,” Butterworth says.Aaron Lubarsky, a New York City filmmaker who is editing and co-producing the documentary, says Sleeth’s and Butterworth’s timing was good.”We’re living in the golden age of documentary films,” he says. “Fahrenheit 911 has grossed $100 million. It’s not unrealistic to hope and believe that what you’re working on can and will have an impact.”Any money over and above costs incurred by the duo’s nonprofit corporation will go toward helping North Korean refugees, Butterworth said.Despite the progress they’ve made, there’s a lingering desire to complete the project. It’s been nine months since they traveled to the China and the Koreas, and the issue hasn’t gone away and won’t without concerted global pressure. “It’s a catastrophe,” she says. “If only people knew.”In October, Minturn filmmakers Jim Butterworth and Lisa Sleeth flew to Seoul, where they were met at the airport by their secret contact, “Bernard,” and began a two-month journey through the capital city, then traveled to Beijing and to the towns along the North Korea-China border.Bernard provided the secret key to the region’s secret Underground Railroad.”His intro was as good as gold to the secretive underground folks,” says Butterworth. “They trusted us.””Jim and Bernard clicked instantly,” says Sleeth. “He’s a 72-year-old Korean – an amazing person – with more energy than you can imagine.”Their film includes footage of a family about to escape North Korea as they say their good-byes to family members and receive their forged documents. It also has devastating footage of a hungry toddler picking bits of food from the muddy ground.
The duo began to learn more about the plight of the North Koreans, who – unlike the South Koreans supported by a roaring economy – live in a country teetering on the brink of insolvency. They ate kimchi, the powerful, fermented-cabbage dish that is one of the staples of Korea. They soon learned that even the subways smell like the powerful garlicky meal in the mornings.Their first stop in China was Beijing, at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. They had a contact name they gleaned from the Times.”We went in with cameras rolling,” she says. “They freaked. We had to stop filming before they would talk with us.”The pair had to resort to an off-the-record interview to get information about the U.N.’s activities in the region. It left them unsettled and more committed to the project.”That solidified our opinion that they’re totally impotent,” she says.The United States has imposed economic sanctions on North Korea because it has broken nuclear non-proliferation agreements and has developed nuclear capability.
Their next stop as “tourists” was Yanji, China, just north of the North Korean border. It’s the area many North Koreans live and work once they illegally cross the border.”We got there late at night and in the morning looked across the Tumen River,” she says. “It was the most miserable stark place that’s been totally deforested.”The two tall, blond Americans were conspicuous because Yanji is not a location that attracts many tourists. “This was ground zero,” Butterworth says. “We can’t say too much about the people we met with because we’ll blow their cover.”While there they hooked up with another member of the railroad, an American citizen of Korean extraction.Many members of the railroad adopt higher-profiles than what might be expected to help throw off suspicion about their activities. Every week the Chinese send 200 North Koreans back. How many escape is not known.”These (activists) are not wimps,” she says. “They’re bad-ass They are survivors. These activists are confident, strong-willed and risk takers.”While in Yanji, they met with a North Korean refugee who was living with a Chinese man. Through her, they learned that women refugees are often purchased by Chinese men for $800.They also sent a man inside North Korea with the hidden button camera, but they declined to provide many details. They received other films made inside the country they were able to smuggle into the United States. To throw off any suspicions, they also created dummy camcorder memory cards filled with typical “tourist” shots they could hand over to the authorities if they were stopped and questioned.While in China they also gained another companion that was a little tough to shake – fear.”In China I felt very isolated and vulnerable,” Sleeth says. “The seeming untouchability of being an American – I really sensed I could disappear – you’re truly on your own.”Surprisingly, not many of the operatives of the railroad understood the power of the tools Sleeth and Butterworth were bringing to the situation. “They were too focused on their plans and didn’t understand the power of the media. They were too worried about retribution,” she says.
They returned to Seoul for a couple of weeks to finish up their filming and then returned to Seattle for Thanksgiving. With them was 50 hours worth of raw footage and a growing feeling they were morally obligated to see their project through. That commitment would test the pair’s energy, financial reserve, resolve and their relationship because it would require all their spare time.”There’s so much pressure to get this film out,” he says. “The crisis is so bad. We have an obligation to get this film out before it gets any worse.”One of their first calls was to Alex Oxman, a storied documentary filmmaker. He suggested they contact Aaron Lubarsky, a New York City-based filmmaker, who had won an Emmy for “Journeys with George,” about George W. Bush’s campaign for the presidency.Butterworth put together a 40-minute demo film and forwarded it to Lubarsky to do the editing. They also met with the New York Times television network, which wanted to produce the film for them – at no expense.This was a turning point for them. They could now hand off their project to a third party or they could do it themselves and bear the additional $100,000 in editing, production, marketing and distribution costs.They decided to do it themselves, and hired Lubarsky to edit and produce the film.”I’ve had a lot of requests to edit films,” Lubarsky says. “I get a lot of calls from first-time filmmakers who have a pipe dream. I could tell Jim and Lisa were serious.”
Lubarsky, who will be editor and co-producer, says it is rare that first-time filmmakers get what they need to make a film. Sleeth and Butterworth did.”I’m not sure how they were able to do it,” Lubarsky says. “They were able to come back with this amazing footage they shot themselves and acquired from the underground.”Working from a small apartment in Minturn, Sleeth and Butterworth in January started what would seem like an endless string of 16-hour days. She worked at the hospital and put in time on their project, too. He has maintained some of his dealings with his patent and spends the rest of his time on the film. They connected with Lubarsky online and reviewed his edits and added subtitles and made further revisions. Sleeth and Butterworth draw from each others’ respective strengths.”I’m the touchy-feel humanitarian,” she sad. “Jim’s the one who brings it back to ground.”Their excitement about the project dims a bit when they reflect on what it has taken out of them so far. “I have to say I’m still feeling the pain right now,” she says. “It’s been an amazing experience and I cherish and feel honored to tell this story, I just don’t know that I could do it again.”Butterworth is less certain.”I like it but I think there’s a way to do this – make films on a regular basis – with less pain and sacrifice,” he says,. Both are quick to point out that what they’ve done is nothing compared to the ordeals the refugees face each day.Cliff Thompson, a writer based in Vail, Colorado, can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (970) 949-0555 ext. 450.