Korean-Canadian director Ann Shin went undercover to capture the story of North Koreans following a dangerous escape route from their country.
The Defector: Escape from North Korea, screening Saturday at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto, follows six real people on the dangerous and arduous journey from their closed country to the West.
They begin in China, making their way through Laos and then Thailand, under the guidance of a man known only as Dragon.
Vancouver-based Shin said she did not know whether to trust the former North Korean commando turned people smuggler.
"During the course of filming I changed my mind about him about five times. He says he's a human rights activist, but at the same time, he's charging a fee," she said.
Nor did her subjects want to be filmed — they faced jail or execution if they were caught and retaliation against relatives back home if they appeared on film.
Much of the filming was done with hidden cameras, Shin said.
One of the women had been trafficked into China as a bride for a Chinese farmer. A North Korean man had been in China eight years, working in the dangerous coal mining industry. Both feared capture by Chinese authorities throughout their time in China.
But one escapee agreed to speak so he can get the story of life in North Korea out into the world. He lost his first wife and daughter to famine-related disease in North Korea and wants to help other North Koreans.
"One woman wanted to be a woman activist and help people in her country, another man wanted to be an entrepreneur and another woman wanted to get a stable life," Shin said.
Hot Docs is North America's largest documentary film festival and runs until May 5 in Toronto.