How Successes Flow From Failures

Isn’t it amazing how failures can often lead to unexpected successes? Those missteps frequently have a way of opening meaningful doors, even if it doesn’t seem that way at the time they occur. An allegedly wrong turn, for instance, may lead us to a fortuitous synchronicity that pays off handsomely at some point – an outcome that may not have occurred were it not for that supposed error. But how readily aware are we that such developments can occur? That’s one of the uplifting insights to come out of the new absurdist comedy, “Problemista” (web site, trailer).

While growing up in El Salvador, young Alejandro Martinez (Logan J. Alarcon-Poucel) lived a special life. Under the watchful care of his attentive and loving mother, Dolores (Catalina Saavedra), the imaginative youngster was nurtured in the development of his innate creativity, particularly his ability to devise ideas for inventive toys. In large part this was due to his mom’s dedicated efforts at protecting her son’s well-being, all in the hope that it would help him avoid the kinds of troubling, everyday worldly problems that could end up thwarting his ambitions and talents, not to mention the potential for his success.

Imaginative young Alejandro Martinez (Logan J. Alarcon-Poucel, left) leads a charmed life with his attentive mother, Dolores (Catalina Saavedra, right), while growing up in El Salvador, as seen in the whimsical new absurdist comedy, “Problemista.” Photo courtesy of A24.

Years later, as a young adult (Julio Torres), Ale decides to act upon his dreams by becoming a professional toy designer. He seeks to enroll in a talent incubator program aimed at developing his abilities, an initiative sponsored by the corporate toymaker giant, Hasbro. However, to qualify for the New York-based program, he must be physically present in the US to submit his application, even for an online submission. So he says farewell to El Salvador and moves to the Big Apple. But, to be able to remain there, he must obtain a work visa, something he must maintain for as long as he stays stateside.

Fortunately, Alejandro lands a job working for a cryogenics company, which serves as his sponsor for acquiring his visa. He serves as a curator for one of the firm’s clients, making sure that the deceased individual’s body remains frozen. But, when a minor mechanical mishap occurs – one that fortunately resulted in no harm to the client – he loses his job, along with his sponsor. Because of that, he has 30 days to find a new sponsor to hold on to his visa and his eligibility to stay in the US. If he fails at that, he faces deportation, as well as an end to following through on his incubator program application – and the fulfillment of his dream.

After being fired, as he’s leaving his workplace for the last time, Alejandro witnesses a heated argument taking place in the company’s reception area between management and an angry client, an eccentric, flamboyant, vociferous art critic, Elizabeth Ascencio (Tilda Swinton). For starters, she’s upset that the company is asking for more money to care for the body of a loved one who’s on ice at its cold storage facility. She’s also irate when she hears about the accident that could have resulted in the thawing of her beloved’s corpse, the incident that got Ale fired. Elizabeth is unaware that the unwitting witness to this exchange was the curator responsible for this nearly disastrous event, but that doesn’t stop her from escalating the dispute to Biblical proportions.

And just whose welfare is Elizabeth so concerned about? It’s her late partner, Bobby (RZA), a young painter who died of cancer in the 1990s and chose to have his body frozen in hopes of making a comeback one day. In the meantime, Elizabeth has become the caretaker of his remains and his artistic legacy, one best known for his collection of paintings of eggs. The paintings aren’t exactly in high demand except among collectors who have developed an acquired taste for their unique character, but Elizabeth is convinced they still have some intrinsic monetary value. So, to help raise money for Bobby’s continued cryogenic curation, she decides to stage a show of the artist’s works. However, given her perpetually scattered focus and an inherent inability to organize such an event, she needs help to pull it off.

While seeking to fulfill his dream as a professional toy designer in New York, Salvadoran immigrant Alejandro Martinez (Julio Torres, left) seeks to strike a deal to help make that possible with flamboyant art critic Elizabeth Ascencio (Tilda Swinton, right) in the whimsical absurdist new comedy, “Problemista.” Photo courtesy of A24.

Enter Alejandro. Upon leaving the cryogenics office, he strikes up a conversation with her about assisting with this project. She’s open to the idea, but Ale makes a request in exchange for his help – that she hire him and become his sponsor for a new work visa. It’s a proposal that she seems to make a vague agreement to honor, though the details are sketchy at best. Little does he know what he’s getting himself into.

To find out how to make this work, Alejandro visits his immigration attorney, Mr. Khalil (Laith Nakli), who details the requirements that must be satisfied. Alejandro still faces the 30-day deadline to nail down the particulars. Also, while the visa application is pending, Alejandro is not allowed to accept any money from Elizabeth. So, to support himself, Ale must find a job that pays cash, with no paper trail. When he asks his lawyer where he can find such work, Khalil recommends that he turn to Craigslist, a source of all manner of cash-paying jobs. So, with this scenario in place, Alejandro sets out to secure work, his visa and the fulfillment of his goal.

If only everything were that easy.

Before long, Alejandro becomes a “problemista,” an individual who’s prone to continually stepping into one problem after another, all of which become compounded as he attempts to sort them out. And, unlike the conditions under which he grew up, he’s without Dolores to protect him, leaving him to resolve these issues on his own.

So what is he up against? First, there’s Elizabeth’s unpredictable, stream-of-consciousness thinking, which changes direction more often than the wind, continually launching Ale into multiple ventures all at once. In turn, she questions his competency when he has trouble complying with her whims, prompting her to hire a potentially rival assistant (James Scully) who threatens to take over Ale’s job and ruin his chances at obtaining Elizabeth’s sponsorship. Then there are Alejandro’s interim financial woes, especially when it comes to landing reliable, gainful employment through Craigslist, an entity personified here in a series of surreal sequences symbolized by a sinister, menacing being (Larry Owens). He also has a series of encounters with a string of colorful but questionable characters, including his zoned-out roommate (Kelly McCormack), one of Bobby’s ex-girlfriends (Greta Lee), Elizabeth’s smart-mouthed former assistant (Greta Titelman) and a Craigslist client with a most unusual fetish (James Seol), among others. And all of these incidents are portrayed colorfully and whimsically, with running commentary by an insightful, wise-cracking narrator (Isabella Rossellini).

Art critic Elizabeth Ascencio (Tilda Swinton, left) shares a tender moment with her partner, Bobby (RZA, right), before his untimely death in actor-writer-director Julio Torres’s debut feature, “Problemista.” Photo courtesy of A24.

But, for all of these comic calamities, Alejandro somehow always seems to land on his feet, even if the outcomes invariably end up producing new challenges and mishaps. Is this to be an unending pattern for him? Will his long-held dreams be dashed before he has a chance to realize them? Or will matters find a way to work themselves out? Silver linings can indeed reveal themselves under circumstances like these, but will they?

Despite all the trials and tribulations Alejandro goes through, one can’t help but admire his plucky gumption for sticking with his plan, no matter what obstacles may pop up along the way. That can be attributed to the strength of his beliefs, his conviction to see things through. And that’s significant given the role that our beliefs play in the manifestation of the existence we experience. It’s not clear whether Alejandro (or any of us, for that matter) have heard of or made use of this school of thought, but, considering how determined he is and how matters ultimately play out, it’s apparent that he (and some of us) must be aware of it on some level, even if only subconsciously. Otherwise, under conditions like those he experiences, why would he keep going?

However, if he’s so convinced his goals are obtainable, one might wonder why he continually (if unwittingly) imposes all of the roadblocks he encounters in the process of making this happen. Shouldn’t he just cut through the flotsam and proceed directly to attaining the desired end result? Practically speaking, one might say yes, but there may be other considerations to take into account. For example, even if he has a clear vision of what he ultimately hopes to achieve, he may not know how to accomplish it directly. Consequently, he may have to “feel” his way through the process, taking a series of interim steps in which he employs beliefs (and resulting actions) that enable him to piece his way through the experience. An obstacle, for instance, may conceal a blessing in disguise that only becomes apparent as he strips away the camouflage surrounding it. And, as he does this, he bolsters his awareness of how the process works, increasing his faith in it and strengthening his confidence to employ it in realizing his dreams. Progress comes with practice, and that, in turn, allows him to grow more confident and proficient. Ultimately, the product of this is a greater degree of personal empowerment. And, given the innate power of our beliefs, they prove to be a valuable component in the emergence of this development.

While perusing Craigslist to find a cash-paying job, Salvadoran immigrant Alejandro Martinez (Julio Torres, right) has a surreal encounter with a sinister being symbolic of the notorious internet web site (Larry Owens, left), as seen in the new screen comedy, “Problemista.” Photo courtesy of A24.

This change becomes apparent in Alejandro as his story unfolds. As creative as he might be, he nevertheless is somewhat timid in his attitude and approach, at least initially. Underlying doubts – which are beliefs in themselves – get in the way, preventing him from engaging in the kind of smooth sailing that otherwise might make these ventures flow more easily. He’s susceptible to manipulation under these circumstances, and that can prevent the manifestation of his goals, at least in their hoped-for form. If he wants the results to turn out differently, he needs to get past these conditions and grow into his sense of his own personal power.

The circumstances he encounters thus serve to strengthen his manifestation muscles. Elizabeth’s unwieldy demands and capricious actions, for example, test Ale as he works on developing his materialization abilities. He’s put through his paces as he develops his skills and confidence in himself. The more this happens, the more he succeeds, leading him ever closer to the kinds of outcomes he truly desires. This is where successes begin to emerge from alleged failures. His old, underconfident, reticent self begins to fade away, replaced with a new, self-reliant creator of his destiny. And, for what it’s worth, that’s nothing to toy with, especially when his ambitions finally begin to take off.

Art critic Elizabeth Ascencio (Tilda Swinton, right) seeks to stage an exhibit of the paintings of her late partner with the aid of her eager assistant, Alejandro Martinez (Julio Torres, left) in the new absurdist comedy, “Problemista,” now playing theatrically. Photo by Jon Pack, courtesy of A24.

Imagine all of this at last coming to pass. This debut feature from actor-writer-director Torres provides us with an unconventional, yet hilarious and insightful case study of commitment, empowerment and imagination coming to life. This often-outrageous, wildly inventive odyssey filled with colorful characters and enigmatic situations vividly springs to life on the big screen thanks to its clever production design, imaginative cinematography, and inclusion of surreal and symbolic sequences, making for an edgy yet entertaining watch, an impressive first offering from the former Saturday Night Live staff writer. While there are some instances where the narrative tends to become a little too flamboyantly self-satisfied for its own good, the bulk of the film stays on course and features an array of fine performances from Torres, Swinton and a host of supporting players. “Problemista” was originally scheduled for release in summer 2023 but was delayed by the SAG-AFTRA strike. However, as this delightfully quirky offering shows, the wait was indeed worth it, as it often is for those who encounter seemingly endless snafus on the way to achieving their greatness. If you’re fond of the irreverent, as I am, you’ll get a kick out of this one, an engaging tale that both enlightens and entertains while giving your mind a lot to play with.

Failures – or, more precisely, perceived failures – frequently serve as the keys to opening doors to success. While they may appear bleak on the outside, they often harbor delicious little nuggets that satisfy our needs and give us just what we require to fulfill our desires. And the more readily we become in recognizing this, the more closely (and often more quickly) we move toward realizing our dreams. Armed with this newfound awareness, backed by hefty helpings of self-confidence and personal empowerment, we move ever closer to becoming masters of our destiny and creating a life of tremendous gratification and contentment. And that’s something really worth playing with!

A complete review is available by clicking here.

My Oscar Scorecard

So how did I do on this year’s Oscar predictions? I had a perfect six-for-six on this year’s predicted winners in the top categories (and was happy with the results in each case). Find out more by reading “My 2024 Oscar Scorecard,” available by clicking here. And, to find out how I arrived at those calls, check out “Who Will Win the 2024 Oscars” by clicking here.

Wrapping Up the 2024 CEUFF Film Festival


If it’s March, it wouldn’t be complete without the Gene Siskel Film Center Chicago European Union Film Festival. Check out what I saw by reading “Wrapping Up the 2024 CEUFF Film Festival,” available by clicking here.


Preserving as Much as Possible for as Long as Possible


It’s been said that one of the most cherished hopes for a loving relationship is that its partners inevitably have someone with whom they can grow old together, a time when they can warmly look back on their time as a couple with fondness and treasured memories. Invariably, it’s an earnest, heartfelt exercise in diligently seeking to preserve as much as possible for as long as possible. But what happens when something occurs that threatens the viability of such a meaningful personal endeavor? How are the parties to such a profoundly momentous venture supposed to react when faced with the prospect of losing that connection, particularly the precious recollections of so many loving years together? Those are among the issues raised in the moving documentary/love story, “The Eternal Memory” (“La memoria infinita”) (web site, trailer).

Renowned Chilean author/journalist Augusto Góngora and his wife, Paulina Urrutia, spent many happy years together. In that time, they built a solid, adoring relationship with one another, a tender, affectionate bond that almost took on storybook proportions. They were always there for one another, both personally and professionally, enabling them to fashion lives with many accomplishments on both fronts. They truly attained the best of both worlds for themselves, and each had a devoted companion along for the ride.

Góngora distinguished himself as a journalist during the days of Chile’s Pinochet regime. He courageously exposed the atrocities of the brutal, self-serving right-wing dictator who assumed power during the nation’s 1973 coup d’etat, making the public aware of the rampant barbarity that left many dead and authorities morally bankrupt. He later played a pivotal role in helping to restore the country’s artistic and cultural heritage after its return to democracy in 1990 with the autocrat’s ouster, becoming one of Chile’s most prominent authors. He accomplished much during a difficult time, rising to prominence in the public eye.

During a break from rehearsals of a new stage production, actress/caregiver Paulina Urrutia (left) enjoys some quiet time with her Alzheimer’s-afflicted husband, journalist/author Augusto Góngora (right), in writer-director Maite Alberdi’s moving documentary/love story, “The Eternal Memory” (“La memoria infinita”). Photo courtesy of Micromundo.

Urrutia, meanwhile, developed quite a reputation of her own as an actress and as Chile’s Minister of Culture and the Arts. She occupied a high-profile position in the nation’s arts community, especially at a time when the country needed to reinvigorate its long-starved cultural aspirations. She did much to help bring back what had been lost or lying dormant for so many years.

After the dissolution of Góngora’s first marriage, he became romantically involved with Urrutia, beginning in 1997. Together, Augusto and Paulina became quite the power couple. In many respects, they embodied the concept of loving devotion, setting an example for others in terms of how to make a relationship work. They truly came across as partners who had it all.

That all changed drastically in 2014, however, when Augusto was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease at the age of 62. It was a devastating revelation, the kind of development that often causes many of those afflicted with it to flee into isolation. But Góngora refused to handle it that way. As someone who was accustomed to informing the public about the truth behind troubling matters, he refused to go into hiding. He wanted to help educate the public about the illness in terms of how it progresses, how it can be treated and how it impacts people, including both its sufferers and those around them. And, as a devoted partner, Paulina went along with this plan, getting proactively involved in tending to his well-being.

Those decisions led to the making of this documentary, a showcase for how Alzheimer’s affected both Augusto and Paulina individually and collectively. Filmed over the course of several years, the picture follows the progression of Góngora’s illness, with an emphasis on how Paulina earnestly endeavored to help Augusto retain as much of his memory as possible for as long as possible. Her efforts are truly noble, and Góngora bravely fights to retain those recollections. And, through this, viewers witness the undying adoration between the two, a romance on par with many of the silver screen’s all-time greatest love stories.

But, no matter how much effort they put into sustaining their relationship and warding off the ravages of this devastating disease, unfortunately there’s no stopping the illness from taking its toll on Augusto’s health and the nature of the couple’s connection. While it’s heartening to witness Paulina’s dedication to her love for her partner and her commitment to supporting his continued vitality, it’s impossible to ignore the inevitable decline that takes place – and her growing concern that there will come a time when there’s nothing she’ll be able to do to help him. Even worse, though, is the fear that there will also come a time when he’ll no longer recognize her, perhaps the most unnerving concern when it comes to losing the person with whom she was supposed to live out her days.

Renowned Chilean journalist/author Augusto Góngora (left) and his loving actress wife, Paulina Urrutia (right), share a quiet moment during his struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease, as seen in the Oscar-nominated documentary/love story, “The Eternal Memory” (“La memoria infinita”). Photo courtesy of Micromundo.

What is one to make of circumstances like these? That seems like an almost-unanswerable question. Indeed, how does one cope with the painful loss of one’s soul mate, particularly when it materializes through the kind of slow-motion deterioration taking place here?

When one develops a debilitating condition like Alzheimer’s, many of us would probably seek to go into seclusion, believing that we wouldn’t want to world to see what’s become of us (especially those who hold us in high regard or who care most dearly about us). But that’s not what Augusto and Paulina believed they should do. As longtime high-profile heroic public figures in their own right, they believed they needed to stay visible for the reasons noted above. They were convinced they could do much to let the world know what sufferers of this condition go through, and, by making this film and other efforts, they succeeded in this objective.

That’s what can happen when we employ our beliefs to fulfill a particular goal. It’s not clear how many of us share in this notion (or have even heard of it, for that matter). But the results shown here illustrate just how effective it can be in pursuing such a goal. For example, Augusto and Paulina make it plainly apparent that an illness like this need not be the end of a relationship. Quite the contrary, in fact. This film shows just how much they remained in love and committed to one another throughout much of the progression of Augusto’s demise. It shows how that commitment may have even contributed to sustaining his relative lucidity for as long as he did. There’s a lot to be said for the value in that, particularly since it began with their belief – their faith – in the ability to carry out that notion.

Despite that, though, caregivers are faced with challenges particular to conditions like this, especially when it comes to things that we may take for granted as givens and that we might find it difficult to believe that others forget. That’s depicted in one scene here where the couple prepares to watch an eclipse. Paulina encounters difficulties in coaxing Augusto into wearing a pair of protective glasses. He had forgotten the need to wear them, even to the point where he couldn’t understand all the fuss about this, but Paulina needed to be persistent in getting him to put them on to avoid injury to his eyes. Obviously, even a firm belief in being able to play the role of caregiver can have its share of issues, no matter how strong our resolve to see it through.

Playing the role of caregiver can also create compromises for those undertaking such a task. For instance, early on after Augusto’s diagnosis, Paulina sought to continue her acting career, a much-needed diversion to help her keep from losing herself. She even tried to keep Augusto involved in that venture by bringing him with her to rehearsals. However, as time passed and his condition worsened, she had to adjust her beliefs to align with the prevailing priorities. That couldn’t have been easy, given her love of acting. But, at some point she had to ask herself, which love was greater – that of her husband or that of her craft?

Of course, the bigger underlying condition here is why would anyone use their beliefs to create such a condition in the first place? That’s a valid point, but the reasons behind it are one’s own, something personal that’s essentially no one’s business other than that of the individual who materialized it in the first place. However, there are a number of possibilities behind this, many of which we can speculate about but none of which should be judged.

For example, as in this case, the appearance of the condition could rest with the very objectives previously noted – creating greater awareness of the illness to help promote care and treatment options, perhaps with the ultimate objective of finding the cause and cure. On a more personal level, it could relate to an exit from this reality where the transition to what comes next is cushioned by a lack of conscious awareness, one designed to “soften the blow” about the passage that comes with death. In a similar vein, it could be a vehicle for moving on to another reality or realm of existence that only the experiencer is aware of, a kind of personal journey into the unknown. Or there could be a host of other options that underlie what happens as a result of the onset of this illness. In any event, though, whatever the root cause and associated beliefs might be, they’re all equally valid and open to exploration. Whatever course is selected, it’s seemingly viable to the individual who has chosen it, without criticism or judgment, even if it’s something we would never choose to use our beliefs for.

With his memory failing from Alzheimer’s Disease, renowned Chilean journalist/author Augusto Góngora (right) receives instructions from his wife/caregiver, Paulina Urrutia (left), on how to safely watch an eclipse, as seen in writer-director Maite Alberdi’s Oscar-nominated documentary/love story, “The Eternal Memory” (“La memoria infinita”). Photo courtesy of Micromundo.

What happens when something occurs that threatens to steal our precious recollections? That’s one of the tragedies that can come with various forms of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s Disease, and the effects it can have on a couple like Augusto and Paulina. Their story is sensitively recounted in writer-director Maite Alberdi’s moving documentary, a film that will simultaneously warm and break your heart. In telling their tale, this title explores the importance of preserving one’s memories as a measure of one’s identity and accomplishments, both personally and professionally. In Góngora’s case, that involves the depth of his love for his wife, family and friends, as well as the critical role he played in educating the Chilean public after the 1973 coup and the regime’s subsequent collapse, recollections worthy of being preserved and not lost to the ravages of time and illness. This Oscar nominee for best documentary feature and its designation as one of 2023’s top documentaries by the National Board of Review is a striking piece of filmmaking, one that’s sure to touch virtually anyone who watches it (but be sure to keep those hankies handy). When we consider what can potentially be lost under circumstances like these, any efforts made to prevent that are truly heroic steps to be commended, both for victim and caregiver, and this film does an outstanding job at making that known, both in this case and as a practice to be employed whenever comparable conditions arise. 

No one understands the ease with which we can lose what we hold most dear as those who live with these conditions on a daily basis, either as a victim or caregiver. But, as this film illustrates, it’s possible to fight back, to help stave off the inevitable, as long as we believe in the possibility. Fewer acts could be viewed as courageous as this, but the payoff can be incalculable, even if it doesn’t last forever. Situations like this make clear how important it is for us to hold on to as much as we can for as long as we can. Even if such ventures end up only being fleeting, at least they can add much to our lives for whatever time they last. And, with what’s impending in these cases, that can be just what we need to help us get through to the next stage.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

The Quest for Freedom of Thought


Imagine living in a country where citizens are effectively not allowed to think for themselves, where their beliefs are determined for them. And the dogma used to drill those thoughts into their minds is so formidable and so pervasive that most residents readily capitulate, even reaching a point where they gladly and willingly comply with the dictates planted in their consciousness. They accept conditions for what they are and even celebrate them, readily buying into the notion that they’re living in some kind of paradise, deplorable circumstances to the contrary notwithstanding. However, when individuals are coerced into a situation where it’s impossible to know – or even believe – any differently, it’s not surprising that they comply. Nevertheless, there are those who can see through the relentless propaganda and willingly seek other options for themselves and their families, their courageous stories providing the basis for the mesmerizing documentary, “Beyond Utopia” (web site, trailer).

In today’s world, it’s almost unfathomable that there are places that exist on this planet that operate on the principles of unbridled cruelty, deliberate deception and mass brainwashing, with even the slightest of infractions capable of leading to banishment to remote gulags, brutal beatings and even savage public executions. However, such are the conditions of everyday life in North Korea, a paranoid, ruthless regime that doesn’t hesitate to inflict such indignities on its population and deprive residents of knowledge of anything beyond its borders. In a United Nations human rights report, the unthinkable tactics employed here have been described as being on par with those that were used in Nazi Germany. So it’s no wonder there are those who are self-aware enough to want to escape this harsh reality – that is, at least among those who are able to see beyond the artifice of the false utopian picture that officials have painted of their sorrowful nation.

South Korean Pastor Seungeun Kim works tirelessly to make arrangements for would-be North Korean defectors seeking to escape the oppressive conditions of their homeland, as seen in the captivating award-winning documentary, “Beyond Utopia.” Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Getting out is far from easy, however, a harrowing venture that often requires defectors to flee northward to China and then maneuver through the challenging terrain of several neighboring Asian countries rather than simply crossing into nearby democratic South Korea, a sanctuary walled off by a de facto combat zone boobytrapped with countless land mines. Seeing what refugees must endure to achieve this goal is the aim of documentarian Madeleine Gavin’s latest offering, a compilation of defector stories, including those who have succeeded in escaping and those attempting to do so.

The former are told through a collection of interviews with those who have successfully made their escape, describing their experiences in detail, sometimes with a degree of reticence, almost as if they’re looking over their shoulders to see if they’re still being surveilled. The latter are compellingly filmed with firsthand, on-the-ground footage, with no reenactments, showing in detail the ordeals they must go through to make their flights to freedom, sometimes successful, sometimes not, efforts coordinated by a courageous pastor, Seungeun Kim.

In the process of presenting both of these undertakings, the film provides audiences with a concise yet comprehensive history of how North Korea reached this point. It also reveals some little-known troubling secrets about everyday life in this mysterious land, many of which most outsiders have probably never heard of, let alone seen. For example, given the fact that North Korea has been isolated from much of the outside world, it must manufacture everything it needs to sustain itself, a tall order for a nation with serious economic woes. This is difficult when it comes to such basic necessities as fertilizer to grow crops, a deficiency that has prompted the regime to require that all residents collect and provide their own feces to the nation’s agricultural industry, with penalties for those whose “contributions” are seen as inadequate. Because of imagery and narrative content like this, sensitive viewers may find some of these revelations and depictions quite disturbing, so those easily upset by such troubling visuals and ideas should take note.

North Korean escapee Hyukchang Wu (right) meets with South Korean Pastor Seungeun Kim (left) to discuss plans about helping his family defect from their homeland, as seen in director Madeleine Gavin’s engaging documentary, “Beyond Utopia,” available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Despite the trials and tribulations that defectors have fought to overcome (and continue to do so in new attempts at flights to freedom), what’s perhaps most troubling here is the ongoing challenges that North Koreans face when it comes to being able to possess their own thoughts and beliefs. It’s as if there is an unrelenting war on consciousness being waged by the autocratic regime, a campaign to deny individuals the ability to think for themselves. Those of us not under such oppression may find the idea inconceivable, leading us to wonder how anyone could go along with such thinking. However, if we were placed under circumstances in which we fundamentally couldn’t even imagine such a concept, we might not be able to envision the existence of such a possibility in the first place.

That kind of mindset is essentially a form of belief, one characterized by exclusion and limitation. And that’s important to recognize given the power of our beliefs in shaping the existence we experience. Many of us, like those who reside in North Korea, may not be aware of such a school of thought. However, were we to find ourselves in a position of power to control others by imposing such a perspective on them, we might well be able to coerce them into going along with that outlook without question. It’s unconscionable that anyone would want to do so, but, if one were to employ such a tactic to achieve that result, given the power of beliefs, it’s not inconceivable that such an outcome could emerge, deplorable though it may be.

Attaining such a result, of course, requires that those who are being subjected must go along with those beliefs. But, as this film illustrates, sadly, there are many North Koreans who have done so – perplexingly even among those who are seeking to defect. In telling the story of the Roh family’s journey to flee their homeland, for example, octogenarian grandmother Sunok Park and her young granddaughters, Jinhae and Jinpyeong, freely express their undying support of the North Korean regime while in the midst of their odyssey, despite the determined efforts of their parents, Yonggil Roh and Yeongbok Woo, to seek a better life.

North Korean escapee Soyeon Lee anxiously awaits word about the fate of her teenage son in his attempt to defect to the South in “Beyond Utopia,” a presentation of the PBS documentary series, Independent Lens. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

That kind of opposition, in turn, no matter how limited it might be, has forced the powers-that-be to devise the means to assert and maintain control over the populace. These measures arise from the beliefs of those in charge, and the power driving those control-based manifestations is so formidable that many of those considering a challenge to their authority think twice before taking action. Incarceration, torture and even death are drawn upon to keep the population in line, and, sadly, public awareness of these measures serves as a potent deterrent. This makes it possible to squelch oppositional beliefs often before they ever get a chance to take root.

Of course, the foregoing obstacles notwithstanding, they’re not enough to stop everyone from formulating their own beliefs to pursue their particular dreams. And, given the power behind our beliefs, they’re indeed capable of manifesting remarkable outcomes, results formidable enough to overcome even the most daunting roadblocks that attempt to get in their way. That’s apparent by the many defectors who have successfully found the means to make their escape to freedom outside North Korea.

Sadly, not everyone succeeds at this, as evidenced in the film by the struggle of a young man seeking to join his escaped mother, Soyeon Lee, in South Korea. Some challenges may be difficult to surmount, even when backed by intents aimed at overcoming them. This is where clarity of thought comes into play when formulating the beliefs we need to realize our dreams. Under circumstances like these, that’s particularly crucial given the stakes and the challenges involved. May we – and they – always have the foresight to see our way clear and find the freedom of thought so desperately sought.

“Beyond Utopia” is simultaneously an inspiring yet difficult watch. Considering what would-be defectors must endure – challenging border crossings, the scrutiny of guards and informants along the way, the unscrupulous dealings of often-untrustworthy brokers handling the escape arrangements, among others – this offering shows the lengths to which these freedom seekers are willing to go in reaching their goals, an arduous undertaking, as director Gavin’s film so clearly chronicles. Risking one’s life on the hope of a better life – one that holds the promise of improved living conditions and even the very prospect of being able to engage in the formulation of one’s own beliefs – is quite a gamble. But, considering what these refugees stand to gain, it’s a venture that seems wholly worth it. The intrepid filmmakers’ efforts to capture these events in real time is both commendable and heroic, especially in light of what they stood to lose if they had been caught in aiding and abetting these criminals of the state, but their work gives viewers an up-front look at what these individuals are up against in seeking what most of us take for granted.

North Korea’s Roh family (from left, grandmother Sunok Park, granddaughters Jinpyeong and Jinhae, mother Yeongbok Woo, and father Yonggil) discuss their flight to freedom during their journey to a new life in South Korea in the BAFTA Award-nominated documentary, “Beyond Utopia.” Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

This production, a presentation of the PBS series Independent Lens, has received numerous accolades for its efforts, most notably its BAFTA Award nomination for best documentary. It was also named the winner of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival Documentary Audience Award and a Directors Guild of America Award nominee for best documentary director. Additionally, the picture picked up four nominations in the Critics Choice Documentary Award competition, including nods for best feature, political documentary, director and editing, all well-deserved honors. The film is available for streaming online.

In this day and age, there’s absolutely no excuse for the kind of abhorrent treatment to which the citizens of North Korea are being subjected. Given what’s going on, it’s no wonder that these individuals want out. It’s bad enough that they’re living under appalling conditions, but the fact that they’re being held hostage from expressing – or even possessing – their own thoughts and beliefs is positively reprehensible. We can only hope that films like this raise awareness in the wider world to place pressure on a regime that has no right to inflict such inhumanity on our fellow human beings.

A complete review is available by clicking here. 

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