Minturn couple films documentary in North Korea |

Minturn couple films documentary in North Korea

Cliff Thompson
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Improbable may best describe the quest of two residents of tiny Minturn who are about to weigh in on world affairs in a big way.He’s a lanky 42-year-old investment banker recovering from the cauldron of mergers and acquisitions and venture capitalism in New York City. She is a pretty 35-year-old intensive care nurse at the Vail Valley Medical Center whose laughing blue eyes can become serious and who has a bent for humanitarian causes around the world. Together Jim Butterworth and Lisa Sleeth have created an hour-long documentary film about human rights abuses in North Korea and China called “Seoul Train.” They want to release it globally and they’re close to achieving that. To make the film they operated like secret agents and exposed themselves to risks that few Americans will ever encounter.Desperate and hungry North Koreans are escaping repression they face by fleeing north into China using the clandestine services of a team of volunteers dubbed the “Underground Railroad.” Up to five million North Koreans are at risk of starvation and disease. Sleeth and Butterworth chronicled the activities of the railroad and the seeming indifference of the world’s most powerful nations.For the refugees, getting caught by the Chinese means being deported to North Korea where they could be imprisoned or worse. It’s also a story of commitment and sacrifice by the filmmakers who, more than a year later – and after spending nearly $140,0000 – are getting close to completing their work.Crises to choose fromThe documentary started at a Hot Summer Nights concert in Vail last June where Sleeth and Butterworth met.”We got into a conversation about what’s important in life,.” Sleeth says. “I was interviewing for a job in Tajikistan.””I told her ‘You can change the things that you do,'” says Butterworth.The answer? Leverage -the financial term describing how borrowed assets are multiplied to build organizations. That’s what they did.That conversation was an example of how things work when they have to. It came, coincidentally, when Butterworth – a Tallahassee native who has been in the thick of the go-go world of high finance in the ’90s – was re-evaluating what was important in his life. He’d patented the concept of streaming audio on the Internet but was discovering that the world of high-tech development, money and New York wasn’t providing the life he wanted. He headed west to Boulder to visit friends and to make what he called a “soft landing.” A year later he moved to Vail.Seattle native Sleeth had just returned from a humanitarian tour in Africa where she was evaluating medical and humanitarian needs in Ethiopia, the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and elsewhere. She’d made numerous medical missions around the world. She wanted to find a way to help more than just one person at a time.The discussion and their relationship deepened and by late summer, they were committed to a project. But which? They wanted to do something on human trafficking in Eastern Europe or human rights violations elsewhere in the world. “We asked ourselves who can make a difference in the world,” Sleeth says. “We listed politicians, religious leaders and the media.”They chose to make a documentary film. They didn’t know it would consume the next year of their lives. She took a three-month leave of absence to make preparations. He dove right in.”It didn’t matter that neither of us knew shit from shinola about filmmaking,” Butterworth says. Their project got a start with a chance meeting in July at a Vail Symposium event with Tom Brook, a New York Times bureau chief who, over dinner, told them about a photographer for the Times who had been imprisoned in China for depicting the plight of North Korean refugees. Fearful of losing its Beijing bureau, the Times did not run a story. Brook, however, provided Sleeth and Butterworth with some vital contacts.Secret operativesWhat followed was a tornado of activity that included reading books, arranging flights to South Korea and China, and trying to make contact with members of the Underground Railroad. The latter wasn’t easy. One of Brook’s contacts was Belgian Willy Fautré, who operates Human Rights Without Walls. Butterworth flew to Chicago and met with Fautré, who gave him the number of “Bernard,” a secret operative of the underground.”Naively, I called him,” Butterworth says. “It was a huge mistake. He hung up because his phone was tapped.”That was their first introduction to the secretive and even dangerous venture they were about to embark on. Eventually – and the details of how it was done are kept intentionally fuzzy – they were able to use coded Internet “drop boxes” to deliver e-mail messages. “We’d say things like ‘I have a gift for your nephew,’ to direct him where to look,” says Butterworth. They began to trade messages and began to learn more about the desperate situation there.In the cultish world of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the ruler, there are three classes. The first two classes, the middle class and a privileged class, receive what they need, and often more, from the government. The third class, consisting of about a quarter of the 22 million North Koreans, is the “hostile class.””These people are completely cut off,” Butterworth says. “Five million people are completely dependent on the government for food and medicine.”Worse yet, the government requires farmers to take food crops out of production to grow opium poppies and restricts travel. “If you’re out of food, you cannot pick up an move – you’re stuck,” he says. “Drugs and weapons of mass destruction are the basis of the North Korean economy. More than one-third of the gross national product of the country is diverted into its sizable military and people have been reduced to peasants and are literally starving. “Worse yet, it looks like the word is turning its back on the problem,” Butterworth says.Two weeks before they departed, they purchased the smallest broadcast quality camcorder they could find, complete with a secret “button” cam for surreptitious filming. They began to practice taking shots of kids on the street in Minturn and interviewing each other and even studying camera angles on “60 Minutes” and “Hard Copy” and other news shows.Cliff Thompson can be contacted via e-mail at or by calling 949-0555 ext. 450.

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