From film fests to national TV |

From film fests to national TV

Shauna Farnell
Special to the Daily Two-year-old Han-mi looks on as her mother is wrestled to the ground by Chinese guards at the Japanese Consulate in Shenyang, China, in "Seoul Train," a documentary made by local filmmakers about the North Korean refugee crisis that will make its national TV debut on PBS on Tuesday.

VAIL – Two local filmmakers never realized how quickly they could go from amateurs to experts until their “Train” hit the fast track. Vail Valley Medical Center nurse Lisa Sleeth and Vail businessman Jim Butterworth hadn’t held a video camera until two and a half years ago. But their creation is making its national television debut Tuesday.”Seoul Train,” a documentary about the North Korean refugee crisis, has fallen under thousands of sets of eyes since its premiere at the Vilar Center just more than a year ago, and its filmmakers have coincidentally come to be regarded as experts on the crisis and on documentary-making. On Tuesday, approximately 1 million viewers will see the film simultaneously when it makes its U.S. television debut on PBS.”Since the Beaver Creek screening last October, I can’t begin to tell you how much has happened,” Butterworth said. “It’s played in 70 film festivals worldwide and has won 11 different awards for best film, best editing, best documentary. In terms of what we had hoped for, it’s well beyond anything we ever could have imagined.”

Butterworth and Sleeth traveled to South Korea, China, Poland and elsewhere filming and gathering footage for “Seoul Train,” which tells the story of three different groups of refugees and their dramatic struggles of attempted escapes and sought-after asylum.The film will be aired as part of the PBS series, “Independent Lens,” which is in its third season and features documentaries and films from independent filmmakers. The films in the series have ranged in subject matter from Holocaust profiles, documentaries of stunt women in Hollywood and profiles of musicians such as The Ramones and George Clinton.”Obviously, when I saw ‘Seoul Train’ I knew immediately I wanted it in the series,” said “Independent Lens” producer and founder Lois Vossen, who says she receives about 550 submissions per year for the series in addition to around 150 films for which she saw at film festivals. “It’s right for the series and really balances education and entertainment. There’s great drama. You’re learning about this very important issue that Westerners have limited access to.”Some of the most dramatic footage in “Seoul Train” was procured by underground railroad activist groups in South Korea. This rare footage, Vossen said, is what contributes to the drama of the documentary, which also presents the crisis through the eyes of various congressmen and politicians around the world.”I feel really humbled by it because this issue doesn’t have a huge following and people who are self-made experts on it, the self-selected groups who have done they’re own research and made themselves, they’ve shown us everything they know,” Sleeth said. “We were being let into this terrible crisis. I guess it makes me a little sad that two and a half years (after making the film), the crisis is still going on despite our best efforts and the efforts of all of these activists.”

From station to stationThe key goal of “Seoul Train” was to raise awareness to the issue of the refugee crisis. Sleeth and Butterworth were moved to the cause after listening to New York Times’ reporter Jim Brooke speak about his photographer who was captured filming in North Korea. Butterworth recently saw Brooke at a screening of “Seoul Train” in Tokyo, Japan, and said Brooke’s feedback about the film served as the ultimate “full-circle” moment for him.”Right before the screening started, he leaned over to me and said, ‘This film has dealt a body blow to the crisis.’ That’s impressive coming from a New York Times reporter – the guy I found out about this from,” Butterworth said. “It couldn’t have been any more of a full-circle moment.”

Sleeth and Butterworth said that HBO was also interested in the film, but they preferred to go with PBS because of its easy access to so many non-cable viewers.Vossen said the “Independent Lens” series in which “Seoul Train” will appear Tuesday typically elicits around 1 million viewers. She said it’s extremely satisfying for her to catch wind of and give exposure to documentaries such as “Seoul Train.””For me, the great joy is that independent filmmakers are so passionate,” Vossen said. “For Jim and Lisa to spend the amount of time they spent, to dog a story like they did, then do all the distribution to festivals. That kind of passion is intoxicating. I love the citizen story tellers. The best thing about having a film like this on TV – on public TV – is that, unlike a lot of what you see on TV, it tells the story as it is.”Staff Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext.14632, or

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