When we wrapped up our co-presentation of Total Control Zone – Escape from Camp 14 two nights ago, I was sitting there talking with a friend about the year NKHRFF just had. We tried to figure out when our organization “was born” and so I woke up this morning trying to figure it out. I had this grand plan to type in “North Korean Human Rights Film Festival” into my email search engine, sift through some emails and nail down the date we had our first meeting. The idea for this festival, like many human beings, was conceived after several glasses of scotch. On a flight back from Ecuador with too much time (and scotch) on my hands, I thought that Toronto could really benefit from a film-focused event specifically geared towards North Korean human rights. And so after typing in NKHRFF into Gmail’s search engine and being told that we had “1-20 of many” (the efficient way of saying “793″), I discovered that NKHRFF was officially born on Sunday, February 26th, 2012. But first: Damn! SEVEN HUNDRED AND NINETY THREE EMAILS! It took SEVEN HUNDRED AND NINETY THREE EMAILS to accomplish what we did in one year (and two days), plus several hundred more emails written by others on our team. The larger miracle here is how I managed to maintain a life, a job and any sort of relationship with anyone between all of that writing.
We held our first meeting on Sunday, February 26th, and just like first time parents, everything was incredibly awkward. Take “how do we hold this baby and what do we do when it poops itself”, mix in some human rights, give that baby about eight first-time parents and you’ve got our first meeting. We had some (read: too many) grand ideas (i.e. doing our first year at the Royal Cinema and I’m even seeing an email about doing something in Greece? Hmm… what?) but we eventually began to hone our mission, vision and activities. Here’s what we did in the 367 days since that first meeting:
- - Less than two months after that first meeting where we didn’t even have a name for ourselves, on April 19th we screened Liberty in North Korea’s (LiNK) documentary, The People’s Crisis at Innis Town Hall which was at full capacity. We also invited guest speaker Randall Baran-Chong of HanVoice, Canada’s largest non-profit organization working on North Korean human rights to share some insight on the film and the current context in North Korea.
- - Shortly after that, we ran Canada’s first and only #SaveMyFriend campaign where we added hundreds of Canadian signatures to a worldwide campaign asking China to not repatriate 30+ defectors back to North Korea where they would likely face torture, imprisonment or execution.
- - On June 9th, 2012, we held “The People’s Fundraiser,” an event featuring local musicians to raise awareness of the situation in North Korea while also raising funds for that year’s film festival. This ran in conjunction with our online fundraiser that helped raise enough funds to actually get our film festival off the ground.
- - From July 6-8, 2012, we held our inaugural film festival at Innis Town Hall. This deserves several sub-bullets.
- We decided to host this event on what I would consider the hottest day in Earth’s history. I dare you to find a worse day to hold a human rights event. Let’s quickly go over our options for that day which peaked at 39°C. Beautiful summer evening. Friday night in a big, bustling metropolitan city. Patios serving cold beverages everywhere. You’ve worked hard all week and can either take advantage of the beautiful weather or go to a sweaty theatre and watch a human rights film that will most likely depress you for the rest of your weekend. Despite this, our fans and supporters came through! We love you guys! On that opening night where we featured the North American premiere of Winter Butterfly in front of more than 100 people, we also celebrated our first of hopefully many film festival nights.
- In total, we screened seven films from five different countries including Tiger Spirit, directed by Toronto’s very own Min Sook Lee, a multiple award winning filmmaker who was also present for a very special Q&A. Ann Shin, another Toronto-based multiple award winning filmmaker was also on hand to offer a sneak-peak of her not-yet-released-at-the-time-but-will-hopefully-be-featured-at-NKHRFF-2013 film, The Defector.
- Besides the filmmakers above, we also had special guest speakers Randall Baran-Chong and Erica Kim of HanVoice, Jack Kim, founder of HanVoice and one of Canada’s leading experts on all things North Korea, as well as two North Korean defectors who shared their experiences growing up and leaving North Korea.
- Despite the beautiful weather over the weekend, more than five hundred people called that sweaty theatre their home for a few hours including the general public, media, members of Toronto City Council and the Consul General of the South Korean Consulate in Toronto. High five, team.
- - Few times in life does your life change over tacos. I can name two. The first was when I was sixteen, at the mall, crushing tacos from The Bell and spotted this beautiful girl who I immediately fell in love with. Problem was, I’m pretty sure that at sixteen, the only females that talked to me, on purpose, were my mom, grandma and sister. Took me three years of hard work, but I finally persuaded that girl to date me. Three years of pursuing someone? They just don’t build us like they used to. The second time when tacos changed it all was last August when I was eating some with a friend and got an email inviting me/NKHRFF to come and “participate at the 19th session of the UN Human Rights council meeting in Geneva.” Participate? But how? Who cares, we’re in! And so I made my way to Geneva to represent NKHRFF, alongside my friends in South Korea from the NGO, People for Successful Corean Reunification (PSCORE), and co-presented the World Premiere of 48M on September 14th, a film that captures the struggles of those who try to cross a river separating North Korea and China. We spoke, made some great connections and this was truly an incredible experience.
- - Upon returning to Toronto, we were back into things with a co-presentation of Stateless Things at the 16th annual Reel Asian Film Festival on November 7th. Director Kim Kyung-mook was on hand for a number of workshops and Q&A.
- - On January 18th, 2013, we teamed up with the Monsters and Martians Science Fiction Film Festival to co-present Pulgasari, a North Korean made film directed by Shin Sang-ok. This marked the first time we screened a film actually made in North Korea and supported by the regime there. The reason we chose to co-present this was due to the larger backstory which we wanted to shed light on. Shin Sang-ok was essentially kidnapped by Kim Jong-il and practically held hostage in North Korea for a number of years where he was forced to make films for the country. Kim Jong-il, a huge cinephile, did this in hopes of bolstering the country’s international film presence. Let’s just say it never really worked out. Shin eventually escaped but not before creating this piece of crap gem of a film.
And this brings us back to last night where we did our most-attended co-presentation, the screening of Total Control Zone – Escape From Camp 14 at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. I am so incredibly proud of the NKHRFF team for recommending this film to HRW, having one of our Board members run the Q&A with the filmmaker live from Germany as well as a post-film Q&A with Shin Dong Hyuk and sharing the TIFF stage at such a prominent event. Sitting next to Shin during the screening was an incredible experience and having 300+ people attend and learn about his story overwhelms me with happiness. It’s true awareness in action. It’s the definition of what we are.
Along the way, we’ve shared our story on several campuses and events and also with a variety of media outlets including newspapers, television programs and radio stations including CBC’s Here and Now as well as the Voice of America and numerous interviews with Radio Free Asia. The last two I mentioned were particularly proud moments for us as they were broadcasted into North Korea for North Koreans to hear. We shared our story of compassion and concern and are glad that people in North Korea, even if just a few, were able to hear it.
After the screening last night, I bumped into Shin outside, we chatted for a bit and he hugged me goodbye. This brings me back to one year (and two days) ago and I could not have ever imagined that all of this would have happened in such a short time. Yes, it took 793 emails to get here, a few awkward meetings and yes it took dozens and dozens of staff, Board, volunteers, advisors, friends and supporters to make it happen, but it happened. And we will carry this momentum forward into the next year (and two days). We have a lot of exciting events happening. Here’s a snapshot of 2013:
- - From October 25-27, we will be holding our second annual film festival at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. What an incredible honour to have this facility to be able to do our thing from. We hope that with a larger stage, we’re able to attract and teach more people and bring in more guests to help us out with this process. Alongside film, we also plan on holding workshops throughout the city where people can have more intimate learning experiences from experts, artists, defectors, staff and more.
- - March 9th marks a huge day for our organization as we’re holding our first chapter screening at the University of Guelph. In one day we plan on screening three films and feature some guest speakers in hopes of raising awareness and attracting a crowd outside of Toronto. The following day, March 10th, marks another huge day as we hold our second chapter screening at Wilfrid Laurier University. These chapter screenings define our growth and we look forward to reaching more campuses across the province and country.
- - And finally, without giving too much away, we’re in the middle of a huge rebranding/defining-ourselves-phase right now. Last year, we essentially threw a bunch of crap at the wall and saw what stuck and luckily for us, most of it did (minus an apparent event in Greece?). But with bigger dreams and a larger audience comes a need for more clarity in how we define and present ourselves and so we look forward to announcing and showing our new selves off in the coming months.
I would like to use this final paragraph to extend my gratitude to my incredible co-workers (current and past) as well as our Board of Directors and advisors for the year that was. We have reached so many people and have made so many incredible bonds and friendships along the way. I truly feel that although North Korea is an incredibly tough issue to tackle, we’re playing a role in working towards some kind of solution, even if at this point it’s just raising awareness of the issues. Thank you so very much and cheers to 2013.
Founder & Executive Director
North Korean Human Rights Film Festival