Review: North Korean Human Rights Film Festival and Winter Butterfly

Image courtesy of NKHRFF

Last Friday I attended the opening night of North America’s first North Korean Human Rights Film Festival (NKHRFF) which was held over the weekend at Innis Town Hall in Toronto. While I wish I could give you a more complete overview of the three-day festival, other commitments only allowed me to attend the opening night. However, from what I saw Friday night, the organizers and volunteers deserve a huge round of applause for putting on a successful event to highlight such an important issue.

Like the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF) which wrapped up the weekend before, it was amazing to see a festival put together so quickly (and well) by such committed people. But while the TKFF was about showcasing Korean film and culture, NKHRFF was about bringing awareness to and creating a discussion about the plight of the people in North Korea. They were screening a collection of films and documentaries about North Korea to help educate Canadians about North Korea and what is happening there.

Yes, it’s difficult topic – human rights abuses, oppression and starvation are just some of the issues at hand – and one that many of us in Canada aren’t overly familiar with. But by using the medium of film, the organizers are hoping to reach out to a broader audience. And it wasn’t all doom and gloom; they also let festival attendees know how they could help. HanVoice – a Canadian human rights organization that focuses on North Korean refugees – spoke after the opening film about how the audience could get involved.

Gilad Cohen, NKHRFF’s founder and director, spoke before the opening film to welcome the audience and introduce the inaugural NKHRFF. Although I’d previously spoken with Gilad, and in fact interviewed him about the NKHRFF, I found his speech and the accompanying video presentation interesting and enlightening. He’s a great spokesperson for the NKHRFF not only for his passion for the cause but also because he’s simply a good public speaker (and that’s important). For more information on the NKHRFF, please visit their website.

And then it was time for the opening film, Winter Butterfly (겨울나비), a South Korean film whose director, Kim Gyu-Min, is a North Korean defector.    

**Warning: Spoiler Alert**

Winter Butterfly (겨울나비) is based on a true story about a mother and her son in North Korea who are living on the brink of starvation. Their lives are a daily struggle just to get enough food on the table to continue to live. And yet, throughout the majority of the film we can see the love and devotion they have for each other which makes the ending even more horrific.

The son – Jinho, an 11 year old boy – spends his days gathering firewood with another young boy, which his sick mother sells the next day at a local market. They survive on the small amount of food that she is able to purchase from their wood sales. They are literally living a day-to-day existence and only have each other to depend on.

One day he gets into a fight with his friend and heads into the forest to forage for wood alone. Unfortunately, on his way back he falls down an embankment and hits his head. As he wanders around lost but determined to make his way back to his mother, she searches for him.  He finally finds his way home, only to realize his troubles are far from over.

This is a story of starvation, desperation, the bonds of family and life under a regime that most of us can’t even imagine. The horrific ending aside, it was a very good if difficult to watch film and the perfect choice for the opening night of the NKHRFF. For those with little knowledge of what daily life can be like for many North Koreans, where death from starvation and/or malnutrition is common, this is a good introduction. But be prepared to not just be informed and cry (tears were streaming down my face by the end and I wasn’t the only one crying, the two older ladies beside me were sobbing) but leave feeling drained and ill. The director and actors do a fabulous job at making the story come alive and be real. The characters of Jinho and his mother are compelling and sympathetic so that we begin to care for them.

The ending – which I can’t even begin to describe – was so realistic-seeming and horrific that it made me feel ill. I knew it was going to be a difficult film to watch going in, especially as it’s based on a true story but nothing could have prepared me for the ending. Let’s just say, I had plans to meet friends afterwards for Korean BBQ and couldn’t even consider eating anything afterwards, let alone meat.

Did you attend the NKHRFF? Did you see Winter Butterfly? What did you think?

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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