Sundance 2023: Beyond Utopia, The Disappearance of Shere Hite, Victim/Suspect | Festivals & Awards

Madeleine Gavin’s “Beyond Utopia” opens with the information that nothing that follows includes recreation. Everything in the film happened, including hidden camera footage of a family trying to defect from North Korea, a process that involves crossing a guarded river, climbing a mountain, and then traveling through China, Vietnam, and Laos—three countries where you can be captured and killed—to the relative safety of Thailand. At any point on this journey, you can be captured not only by authorities but by everyday people who will then sell you to traffickers. I’ve rarely seen anything as genuinely harrowing as what happens to the family this film follows over this impossible trek, including children and an elderly woman who is so indoctrinated by North Korean brainwashing she questions what they’re even doing.

To provide context for this personal story, Gavin cuts back to successful defectors who fill in details on what life is like in North Korea. While the propaganda of North Korea is pretty widely known, it feels like much of the actual life-on-the-ground details of life in the country have been underreported. At one point, an expert suggests that the country as a whole commits the most human rights violations since Nazi Germany. That’s happening right now. People die in the street from hunger and disease. People who oppose the government are publicly executed. And it’s all under an incredible curtain of misinformation that allows no material from outside North Korea to get to its people.

“Beyond Utopia” is a human interest story and a historical document of what’s happening in a powerful country. Gavin strikes a perfect balance between the two, profiling a pastor who risks his own life to rescue people from tyranny. The result is a documentary that’s both a big-picture study of oppression and a story of individual acts of courage. Great documentaries often balance the personal and the political, finding a way to teach through the stories of relatable human beings. We come to know and care about the people in “Beyond Utopia” and, by extension, all of those struggling to find a better life around the world.

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