New Malden, less than ten miles from the DPRK’s London embassy in Acton Town, has historically had a large ethnic Korean population and boasts one of the largest resettled populations of North Koreans outside of South Korea.
Since 2014, British filmmaker Roxy Rezvany has been seeking to document the lives of North Koreans who have left the DPRK and resettled in the small town in south-west London.
The resulting documentary, “Little Pyongyang”, is the culmination of conversations with one of these refugees and a resident of New Malden, Joong-wha Choi.
The film provides the viewer with an opportunity not presented often enough for most people: the chance to hear directly from a North Korean about their life, their hopes, their memories, their plans for the future and their experiences in the present.
Apart from being visually stunning, the documentary also presents certain simple truths that should be apparent, but very often aren’t, when it comes to the general public’s consumption of defector stories.
One of these truths is that despite similarities in experiences, “one defector is not all defectors”, as Michael Glendinning – founder of Connect North Korea – put it during the post-film screening panel.
Another of these truths is that while it is such a significant element of their lives, defectors are not defined in perpetuity by the human rights abuses they faced.
NK News spoke to Rezvany ahead of the film’s release.
NK News: There have been other defector stories that have been documented and published in multiple different formats previously. How would describe Little Pyongyang differs to those who have not yet seen it and what message were you trying to convey with the film?
Roxy Rezvany: The film is about Joong-wha Choi, a former soldier from the DPRK who lives today with his wife and kids in the sleepy London suburb of New Malden. Despite enjoying the new found comforts of his British life, and being emancipated from the pressures of the North Korean state, his dilemma lies in a desire to return to the land that he believes betrayed him, but is undoubtedly his true home.
The film tracks his reflections on both why he left North Korea and the state of his day to day life over the course of several months, in what is ultimately a portrait of loss, longing, and the complexities of healing from trauma.
It is filmed entirely in the UK, and over the course of several months – and is the result of working to document the experiences of North Koreans in the UK since 2014. I really wanted to make a documentary film that would be unique and offer something new to the coverage of North Korea, and also stand the test of time and still be contributing to conversations about North Korea in 10 or even 20 years.
Therefore, it was everything from the stylised set design and abstract reconstructions we shot to illustrate his words, to the types of questions we put to Joong-wha – about childhood, about family conflict and fatherhood and about the effects on his mental health of repeatedly recalling the human rights abuses he experienced, alongside his experiences of the North Korean regime, that were part of this.
In portraying his story, I relied on a mix of visual aids and metaphors, stylised recreations and non-sync sequences, instead of observational documentary elements – all of which were derived from inspiration and references from North Korean design and aesthetic.
“I really wanted to make a documentary film that would be unique and offer something new to the coverage of North Korea”
The original score by composer Matt Huxley also put in a lot of the work to really convey aspects of the story beyond just what you see on screen. My belief was that to unseat the preconceptions of North Koreans that I feel people hold, the film’s form itself needs to challenge the conventional stylisation of ‘refugee story’ documentaries which are predominantly shot as reportage and actuality, with a style people would not be expecting.
Beatriz Sastre (the cinematographer) and I discussed at length ways to make sure that the film was visually beautiful and intriguing with our shots telling just as much of a story as Joong-wha directly was himself.
It was part of the respect we were trying to give him and his story, and it was also really important for me to convey through the film’s creative decisions as well as journalistic ones that Joong-wha is a unique person, and within the film’s set up convey the different aspects of his personality. It was all part of signaling to the audience that we need to not be viewing ‘North Koreans’ as one homogenous block, and neither simply as ‘refugees’ or ‘victims’.
NK News: Do you believe changes need to be made in the discourse around North Korean refugees?
Roxy Rezvany: It’s hard to say that there needs to be a change in the discourse of North Korean refugees, when really at least in the UK we don’t have a prevalent one at all? A common reaction to telling people about Little Pyongyang is ‘What? There are North Koreans in the UK? But how did they get out?’ – that’s how little the awareness is even of the existence of North Koreans as refugees.
Rather we need to change the way we discuss North Korea’s dictatorship and the human rights abuses taking place in the country, and then as part of that, have a greater awareness of the refugee crisis that’s been created as a result – and have more opportunities to hear directly from those refugees.
NK News: Within the film, there are candid personal scenes within Joong-hwa Choi’s household and insights into his daily life beyond his past experiences. Do you think there is a propensity to delve into the terrible experiences of North Korean defectors in media? What is missed by concentrating solely on this?
Roxy Rezvany: My comments are mainly in reference to the mainstream English language press but I feel that when you do see coverage of North Korean refugees they ask the same two questions – how did you leave, and what were your experiences of human rights abuses. It’s as if no one is interested in anything else, and that this is the sum of being North Korean.
“We need to change the way we discuss North Korea’s dictatorship and the human rights abuses”
It is, of course, important to record the human rights abuses taking place in the country, but this isn’t the sort of reporting I am talking about. I am talking about when journalists will do one on one interviews with refugees, put their faces, names and lives out there – but rarely venture beyond portraying people as anything beyond the worst of their experiences.
I think in the context of the fact that portrayals of North Koreans are limited to either victims of abuse or devoted followers of the ‘Dear Leader’, we’re left with very little in between to find common humanity with – and this is a complaint of many of the refugees I have spoken to.
For me therefore, this film was not just about trying to engage people with the human rights crisis in North Korea, which was at the end of the day my primary concern, but also aiming to be a portrait of North Koreans, and more generally of a British East Asian family in the UK, and to do so without caricature and with intimacy and sensitivity.
I wanted to ignite coverage of North Korean identity and culture, to separate these things from the regime, and to help people understand that North Korea and its people do not equate to the regime.
NK News: There appears to be a strong sense of community among North Koreans who have resettled in New Malden, which is shown your film in the final scenes. Why did you choose to end on that scene?
Roxy Rezvany: The scene came at the end because it was a natural close for the film’s narrative, and incidentally also the last thing we shot. Through the film we see Joong-wha talk directly to us about everything from his childhood hopes and dreams to the death of his brother and his perceived inadequacies as a father.
The observational footage of the day to day also shows him as very introverted and reflective, and so after having been at his most vulnerable, and seeing him in conflict we end the film seeing another side to him – the side that his community sees when he has to put to the back of his mind everything that he’s shared.
We see him as a leader and we see him rallying people for change, and it’s the best thing that he can do and the power he can seize having been made to have felt powerless in relation to the barriers he has found to supporting his family in the UK, and directly overcoming the human rights abuses in North Korea.
“Like in all communities – there’s diverse individuals, opinions and ways of thinking”
If you were to see that scene without everything that comes before it, it may be harder to appreciate that, and also you may not see the scene as a room of individuals each with potential stories like Joong-wha’s. It’s important to have images of celebration but understand their context too, and neither forget nor bury the pain that’s also been experienced – but ultimately the story here is that people are working to overcome that pain so the scene is an end to the film to represent the momentum this group is building going forward.
What is also worth saying about the community is that there are many individuals like Joong-wha who are driving a will to remain an active collective, but like in all communities – there’s diverse individuals, opinions and ways of thinking.
NK News: Has Mr. Choi seen the completed film and how react to seeing it?
Roxy Rezvany: Joong-wha saw the film whilst it was still in progress where we watched it together, and again once it was completed.
Paraphrasing what he said in his immediate reaction, he said ‘you understood what I was saying and captured my way of speaking’ which is in many ways is the best compliment you can get as a documentary filmmaker who has set out to do justice by someone’s life and experiences.
He did worry that the title ‘Little Pyongyang’ would make people believe he was from Pyongyang when he is not (and the experiences of those in Pyongyang the capital are markedly different from his, living in a small town and then being in the army) – however I explained the title would be taken for its metaphor, and reference to the community which he is a part of.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Roxy Rezvany & Beatriz Sastre
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