Ann Shin’s new documentary The Defector follows a North Korean smuggler, “Dragon,” as he escorts five defectors out of the country. Shin describes how she shot the film under extremely strict conditions:
We had to take DSLR cameras that looked like tourist cameras, since we went to China on tourist visas. We had to hide all our hard drives and halfway through our trip I shipped one of the hard drives out. I was constantly hiding my shoot notes in my luggage so they wouldn’t be found. And we took a lot of B-reel shots of the landscape in case we got caught and officials wanted to see our memory cards—then we could show them our stupid tourist shots.
We shot with the DSLR cameras often just hanging around our necks, from the chest. The soundman was brilliant—he was really risking his livelihood, because if we were caught he’d be in a Chinese prison for sure. He had a portable recorder, which he stuck in a man-pouch and he’d just kind of walk next to whoever was talking. On buses or trains he’d just get close to our subjects and blend in with everybody. He just disappeared. Meanwhile he was collecting great sound without having to use a boom or a mic.
The experience changed Shin’s opinion on smugglers:
In the end, I thought Dragon… he can be aggressive, he can be intimidating, he doesn’t have the greatest bedside manner, but he knows what he’s doing. He lives by his word, so in his own way he’s principled. … [Smugglers] exist because governments and NGOs are failing people in certain circumstances.