Out of Breath

Saving lives in the world's most secretive state

Out of Breath In rural North Korea, a film crew follows a small group of international volunteers fighting the spread of Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis. Working with North Korean medics, the volunteers venture deep into the world’s most secretive nation, overcoming cultural and political hurdles to save lives.

Every six months, Hyuna Linton, a South Korean citizen, visits North Korea to provide medicine and care to those suffering from multidrug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB). On one of her first trips, she met a fourteen-year-old girl with the disease. Returning half a year later, Hyuna brought the necessary medicine to treat the girl. But it was too late. “My heart broke then. I think she was the first patient who died that I remember.” The girl’s death stemmed from the frustrating reality that volunteers can only visit these areas once every six months, a situation that fellow volunteer and MDR-TB expert Dr. KJ Seung also laments. “Imagine ok, these people come from America, they drop off these drugs they have never seen before… and then boom they’re gone. If you have any questions, you can ask them in six months.”

According to WHO, North Korea has one of the highest numbers of MDR-TB cases in the world. Highly infectious and difficult to treat, MDR-TB causes progressive destruction of the lungs. Hyuna is married to Stephen Linton, the founder of the Eugene Bell foundation, an NGO who have been working alongside the North Korean government for over twenty years to provide essential medicine and equipment to help combat the disease. They visit MDR-TB centres in North Korea every six months, placing them among a tiny number of foreigners granted access to North Korea’s rural heartland. What they and their volunteers encounter is unlike anything they have seen elsewhere. “My husband always explains to the employees that it’s like planning for a trip to outer space”, says Hyana. “We’re going to space, so we must prepare for everything.”

The volunteers work alongside North Korean doctors, nurses and pharmacists to help treat their patients. Putting aside their cultural differences, they work towards the same aim of treating and caring for their patients. North Korean pharmacist Park Ryunhee’s motivation, much like the volunteers, is to help the unwell: “I could have chosen a different job, but I wanted to do my part in this most difficult and exhausting area.”

Together, the volunteers and local teams oversee some remarkable recoveries: Kim Taesung weighed just 95 pounds when he was first admitted to an MDR-TB centre. He was so debilitated by his illness that he could barely stand or breathe. Six months later and after a course of powerful drugs, Kim is a man transformed: “My fever dropped and my head cleared up. I’m glad I always feel alert now.”

For Stephen Linton, the biannual expeditions represent a rare chance for collaboration and even friendship between North Korea and the outside world. “When you’re dealing with North Korea or any independent culture, as an outsider you’re sort of pulling two worlds together.” Indeed, many of the volunteers form unexpected and profound bonds with their hosts. Working together for a decade, Hyuana and Dr. Im Sonhee, a North Korean doctor, have become close friends. “I remember Dr. Im touching my cheek and saying, “Don’t get sick”. My heart felt so heavy. I realised how much she worries about us...That kind of warmth is special.”

The Producers

Hein S. Seok - Producer/Director

Korean-American documentary filmmaker Hein S. Seok seeks to illuminate the difference between how people present themselves and how they are presented by others. She helps those who are victimized or villainized by mass media to tell their own compelling stories.

Her documentary film, The Sinking of the Sewol, won four awards at the 2015 New York Festival, including the Gold Medal for Best News Documentary/Special and the Bronze Medal for Best Direction. She has received a grant from the Center for Asian American Media for Seeking Haven and was nominated for Best Documentary at International Emmy Awards in 2012 for Across Land, Across Sea.

Taegon Kim - Co-Producer/Cinematographer

Taegon Kim is a two-time International Emmy Award nominated cinematographer. He has filmed over 100 documentaries including The Sinking of the Sewol, which won four awards including Best News Documentary/Special at New York Festival.

He has filmed for broadcasters around the world including BBC, NHK, CNA, KBS, SBS, MBC, and NGC. Taegon covered the Afghan war and Kachin conflict in Myanmar and has considerable experience filming in remote regions in East Asia for extended period of times.

Making The Film

I film documentaries to explore the differences between reality and the images shown by mass media. Previous to the trips I made to film this documentary, I had no opportunity to learn what people’s lives were like in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). But seeing and hearing news about North Korea, I couldn’t help asking myself “Is this all there is to it?” When I saw Eugene Bell’s short video clip a few years ago, I was shocked at the gap between it and media reports and I decided to join Eugene Bell's delegations to North Korea to witness and film it for myself.

On my first visit, I discovered that North Korea is a place where regular people live—people whom I had never been able to see before. North Korea looked quite natural in a certain sense. For instance, I saw a mother carrying her sick son on her back even though he was bigger than she was, hoping to get treatment for him. I also saw anxious children taking care of their father, who was suffering from tuberculosis, and caregivers who were trying their best to cure their patients despite a lack of diagnostic equipment and medications. These were people right in front of my eyes - people who were invisible to mass media. Through Out of Breath I would like to share with you what I saw and heard.

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