The gripping story of families attempting to escape oppression in North Korea in “Beyond Utopia” on INDEPENDENT LENS – January 9 at 9 pm

Posted on:

< < Back to



Tuesday, January 9 at 9:00 pm

Filmmaker Madeleine Gavin Follows a Courageous Pastor as He Guides Individuals Across Borders while Attempting to Flee North Korea


The Roh family listens to Pastor Kims' final instructions for their journey. There are five family members sitting on bench.
The Roh family listens to Pastor Kims’ final instructions for their journey.
Credit: TGW7N LC

INDEPENDENT LENS is set to premiere the winner of the U.S. Documentary Audience Award at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, “Beyond Utopia.” Madeleine Gavin’s heralded and harrowing feature documentary is a suspenseful depiction of a long and dangerous journey to freedom, following a courageous pastor who has saved over a thousand defectors as he works tirelessly to guide families attempting to flee oppression in North Korea.

“Beyond Utopia” will make its PBS and PBS App debut on INDEPENDENT LENS on Monday, January 8, 2024, at 10 p.m.

A riveting portrait of the lengths people will go to gain freedom, “Beyond Utopia” follows several individuals as they attempt to flee North Korea, one of the most oppressive places on Earth, a land they grew up believing was a paradise due to pervasive propaganda. At the film’s core is a courageous pastor helping a mother reunite with the child she was forced to leave behind, and a family of five—including small children and an elderly grandmother—embarking on a treacherous journey into the hostile Changbai Mountains of China and through Southeast Asia.

Leaving their homeland is fraught with unimaginable danger, including imprisonment if caught in China—yet the hope of a better life compels these individuals to take the risk.  As they pass through the mountains, China is not the refuge that escapees seek, often leading to capture, torture, trafficking, and extradition while the impenetrable jungles of Vietnam and Laos present additional challenges on their road to freedom.

Madeleine Gavin’s award winning film embeds the viewer with the families as they attempt their perilous escape, palpably conveying life-or-death stakes as they document their journey on cell phone cameras. After months of building trust with Gavin, the refugees and brokers secretly shot most of the footage themselves, on the ground along their perilous journey.

The Roh family trek through the jungle. Father carrying child on back. He's wearing a headlamp to find his way
The Roh family treks through the jungle.
Credit: TGW7N LC

The result is a singular, heart-pounding, and unforgettable experience with access to the refugee journeys never seen before. Gripping, thrilling, and never more timely, this film shifts the focus beyond the nuclear headlines coming out of North Korea onto some of the last-known escapees before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Embarking on the journey of making this film was eye-opening and often maddening, realizing that while North Korea is prominently covered in world news, nobody is talking about North Koreans themselves,” said director Madeleine Gavin. “For the people of North Korea, this reality is deeper than any film could explore, but through our partnership with INDEPENDENT LENS we can bring this story to more audiences, and continue to educate viewers about the atrocities they experience and the complexities of seeking asylum from this repressive regime.”

“Making this film has been the most challenging and meaningful experience of my career. Early on, as I was researching, I came to realize that despite how often North Korea is in the news, the actual 26 million people who live within the walls of that country are missing from the conversation. That absence, which so completely negates the humanity of an entire nation of people, is what compelled me to make this film. I am deeply grateful to INDEPENDENT LENS for giving it a platform so that audiences can come to feel the heartbeat of the North Korean people in the same way that I have, as well as to educate viewers about the on-going human rights atrocities and the realities of the monumental courage it takes to attempt to find freedom from the most repressive regime on earth.”