CanKor Megaphone: The North Korean Human Rights Film Festival in Toronto

If Kim Jong Il’s opinions mean anything, the power of film cannot be ignored. The late dictator spent quite a bit of energy trying to vitalize the North Korean film industry – to the point that he kidnapped a South Korean director Shin Sang Ok and his actress wife Choe Un Hee to provide an injection of fresh air into what he thought was a stagnant film scene. This emphasis on film seems to have left a mark on the North Korean people as well. One of the fondest pre-famine memories of those who have escaped the DPRK often revolve around going to the local cinema house to view the latest and greatest coming out of Pyongyang’s movie mill.

There’s not much that Thornhill native Gilad Cohen agrees with Kim Jong Il, but the power of film is one of them. Cohen, the founder of the North Korean Human Rights Film Festival in Toronto, (NKHRFF for short) was a former English teacher in the ROK. As with many folks in Canada, he had very little knowledge of the DPRK and what went inside that country.

Team America was popular during the time I went,” Cohen says.

It was only a fateful trip to Kaesong (which he thought would be a cool thing to tell his friends back home) that his eyes were opened. Even at the beginning of the trip, the surreal reality of watching the ROK military escort jeep veer off when the tour bus approached the demarcation line struck Cohen deeply.

“When the North Korean jeep replaced the South Korean one, it was as if I was watching aliens appear,” he says. “It’s not every day you get to see a North Korean soldier.”

According to Cohen, this first impression left an indelible mark. His experiences, such as interacting with the North Korean minders on tour, looking at everyday North Korean life as well as he could from the prism of his bus window, as well as the story of his South Korean tour guide who could only talk to her North Korean counterparts on these trips into the DPRK, left him transfixed.

“How could you travel only one hour and have everything change from night to day?” he later told me.

Since that trip, Cohen has voraciously sopped up any information he can get his hands on regarding North Korea. As part of an internship with the international development program he was enrolled in, Cohen returned to the ROK to volunteer with PSCORE, a human rights organization based in Seoul. During his stint at PSCORE, he had the chance to go to NKnet’s North Korean Human Rights International Festival in 2011. The idea soon dawned upon him that Toronto could host exactly the same thing.

To Cohen, most Canadians are by and large unfamiliar with what is happening inside North Korea.   Raising awareness is an important first step.

“The NKHRFF has no official solution to the problem that is North Korea,” he said. “But without knowing, you can’t do anything.”

The festival itself runs from July 6-8 and will be held entirely at Innis Town Hall with the opening ceremony starting on Friday at 7pm. The price will be $5 per film, or $12 for a day pass. Among the films will be the North American premiere of Winter Butterfly, directed by a North Korean refugee Kim Gyoo Min as well as Tiger Spirit, a film directed by Canada’s own Min Sook Lee.

As part of the ramp up to the festival, I’ve been told to pass on a few things.

First, the NKHRFF has started a campaign to raise the $6500 needed to run the festival. I have been told that no one from the staff is going to be paid this year, so all these costs will be going into entirely into programming. Second, the festival itself is in need of volunteers, so if you’re willing to do so, please contact Finally, the NKHRFF will also be holding a fundraiser at Jangbang, a Korean taco bar on 430 College Street in Toronto on Saturday, June 9th starting at 9 pm. Cover is $10 with the entirety of the funds going to the festival. I’ve been told that there will be live music and raffle prizes. Day passes for the festival will also be sold at the event at a discounted rate of $10. Perhaps most importantly, the bar itself will be donating 10% of the bar sales to the festival, an uncommon and generous arrangement by the owners.

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