Among the best, most touching, politically explosive, and formally engaging documentaries I have ever seen, Repatriation is an incredible testament to the power of independent filmmaking when in the hands, voice, mind and heart of a a remarkable individual. My feelings about the film and the man who made it are inextricably bound together. Repatriation is as much about Kim Dong-won’s connection to, and friendship with, a group of political prisoners as it is about the questions of injustice related to their plight. It’s about Kim Dong-won growing, learning, and in some ways changing his views over time. It’s about Kim Dong-won’s battle with himself, the thought police, and with various groups opposed to the North. Kim’s first-person voice-over, and occasional appearances within the piece, help ground it historically and locate its emotional centre. He is both the prisoners’ real life companion and an incredibly self-aware guide for our journey through their painful story. It’s a wonderful structure that brings us both very close to Kim’s subjects and as far away from them as he ultimately finds himself.
Kim is a well known documentarian in Korea, but this is the first of his films to travel widely beyond Asia. Since it is caught between the larger power blocs of Japan and China, we in the West are still generally unfamiliar with Korea, its people and its history. Films like Repatriation, that explain history just as they make it, do not come along very often. While Kim certainly sympathises with a leftist position, he is conscious of the mutability of his (and everyone’s) political views as he presents his non-fiction. Repatriation is better understood in a humanist, rather than a socialist, context. People, not ideas, take centre stage.