Hero Film Festival & Awards celebrates depictions of heroism in film. The films selected for the festival’s first cycle will be announced this September. Meanwhile, as we continue to spotlight filmmakers who have submitted their work to the festival, our own Nicholas Crawford (NC) interviewed Thea Elisabeth Haavet (TH), director of Saved – Escape from Kim’s Regime.
Introducing Saved – Escape from Kim’s Regime
Haavet is a filmmaker living in Prinsdal, Oslo, Norway. She received her Master of Fine Arts degree in theater from Sarah Lawrence College in New York and has been working in national television in Norway since 1995. She enjoys hiking, running, dancing and spending time with friends and family.
In 2014, Thea started working for Stefanus Alliance International, a Christian missions and human rights organization. As a film and development producer, she traveled the world with a camera, as a one-person-crew, filming the stories of the persecuted in places like Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Korea.
NC: Please describe what fueled your desire to create this film.
TH: I met Tim Peters when he came to Oslo in 2017, as the organization I worked for then, Stefanus Alliance International, supports his work. Though I have worked with stories about refugees for two decades, it was the first time I heard about the treatment of North Korean escapees who have crossed the border to China, their only means of escape. It was also when I first heard about the underground railroad and those risking everything to help North Korean refugees. Many end up in Chinese prisons when they are discovered. The gravity of the situation combined with the heroic efforts of the rescuers made me want to tell this story. The goal is that more people would hopefully support the work and the efforts to change very unjust systems.
Most people know that North Korea is the world´s worst abuser of human rights. Still, few know what to do about it. It has been fulfilling to highlight the story of a few people who do what they can to help.
NC: Can you elaborate on the difficulties that many people face while trying to flee these oppressive places?
TH: North Korean escapees have to deal with the immediate threat of their own government’s heavily armed border patrol. Even if refugees are successful in crossing undetected into mainland China, their troubles only begin there. The Chinese government, for more than two decades, has turned a cold shoulder to hungry and freedom-starved North Korean escapees by forcibly repatriating them when apprehended by security forces. China does not conduct interviews with North Korean escapees. Instead, the People’s Republic of China simply gives a blanket label to all of them as illegal economic migrants. The refugees are then sent back into the clutches of the Kim government.
Refugees returned to North Korea face imprisonment and harsh treatment, including torture. In some cases, pregnant women who’ve been sold into sexual slavery while in China are forced to have an abortion. North Korean officials declare that such babies “pollute the pure race of North Koreans.”
NC: Can you discuss your past work with refugees and how it led you to work on this film?
TH: Norway has been a very homogenous country until the beginning of the 1970s. Oslo, where I live, has the biggest amount of immigrants, about one-third of the population. Working in media, I have always been curious about their stories. On a personal level, when I moved back from New York, I missed the multicultural scene there. I started to volunteer as a Norwegian teacher in a national organization called Christian Intercultural Work. I befriended so many refugees and became educated about their daily struggle to adapt to a new culture.
When the crisis happened in Syria, I became very involved in helping Syrians who came to Norway. When ISIS attacked in Iraq, I traveled there to find out how the organization I worked for could help. I have been working with refugees all around the Middle East, hearing their stories and making films about their lives.
Losing your country, your belongings, your job, your network of friends and family, and often your feeling of identity is the worst-case scenario. These people deserve our empathy and more people should know their stories.
NC: Please tell me about Tim Peters and your experience working with him.
TH: Tim Peters, the founder of Helping Hands Korea, is an internationally recognized Christian activist. For twenty-three years he has pioneered a series of humanitarian initiatives in response to the North Korean refugee crisis. Now living in Seoul, South Korea, Tim is one of the most visible human rights advocates in North Korea.
Peters originally came to Korea in 1975. He has five grown children with his South Korean wife. When he came to Korea, he soon became an opponent of South Korea’s military dictatorship. The military regime of President Chun Doo-hwan later expelled him from South Korea for handing out anti-government leaflets. He returned to South Korea in the late 1980s.
Later, North Korea’s disfavored classes were struck by a famine that ultimately killed over two million people. In response, Peters established the Ton a Month Club to help feed the North Korean people. He also became an activist in the “underground railroad,” helping refugees escape to South Korea or other countries via China.
It has been an honor to work closely with Tim Peters and follow his work. He is a caring and outgoing man, who loves to talk to and get to know everyone. He works faithfully day and night to help North Koreans, especially the defectors, and to advocate for their rights. Like the many refugee lives changed by Tim’s work, I have been transformed by knowing this diligent, and courageous hero.
NC: What do you think drives people to risk so much to help strangers?
TH: I asked this question to Hite, a young Korean man imprisoned for helping North Korean defectors. He told me about his strong sense of obligation toward other human beings. He believes it would be a sin to not provide them with aid.
Most aid workers mention being motivated by principles of simple compassion, humanitarianism and ethical convictions. By far the most common workers helping the North Korean refugees over the past twenty years are faith-based. Most would say that all the principles listed above are included in their motivation. They also believe that God cares passionately about issues of poverty and justice.
North Korean escapees are often skeptical of the helpers in the beginning. They have often never heard of God and have never experienced someone helping them without wanting something in return.
NC: If nothing else, what do you hope the audience will take away from your film?
TH: I hope they will gain a heightened awareness of the systemic human rights abuses suffered by North Koreans. I also hope they will feel a sense of urgency to prod the US government policymakers to address the lamentable state of human rights of twenty-three million North Koreans with equal weight and importance as the concerns with Kim’s ICBM, nuclear, and chemical and biological weapons programs.
To find out how you can help North Koreans in crisis, click here.