ITVS, Lisa Sleeth and Jim Butterworth

Jan 15, 2007  •  Post A Comment

By Debra Kaufman

Special to TelevisionWeek

When technology entrepreneur Jim Butterworth and registered nurse Lisa Sleeth went to a presentation in Colorado about North Korea security issues, they had no idea that the event would galvanize them to become first-time filmmakers. Mr. Butterworth and Ms. Sleeth bought a camera and three books about making a documentary, spent 10 days learning how to frame, light and interview and, less than three months after they’d first heard of the plight of North Korean refugees, they were on a plane to Seoul.

They spent two months in South Korea, shooting every day but chasing a story that wasn’t materializing. “We had footage but not a story,” said Mr. Butterworth. “We were still trying to find what we called the `Chernobyl baby’ moment from that moment in [Academy Award-winning documentary] “Chernobyl Heart” when the nurse picks up that deformed baby and your heart goes, aah.”

They were getting ready to return to the U.S. when they learned that a railroad underground activist, Moon Kook-han, had some footage he thought they might be interested in. Mr. Butterworth popped the mini-DV cassette into the camera and saw powerful footage of a group of North Korean refugees being arrested for repatriation to North Korea and certain death. “I knew right then that we had our film,” said Mr. Butterworth. “I also knew that we had this incredible moral obligation to get this film out. These people entrusted us with this footage and we had to get the story told, whatever it took, including breaking the bank and putting our careers on hold.”

A month or two later, when the duo were in post production with editor Aaron Lubarsky (who also gets a director credit), they learned of the existence of footage in which seven North Korean refugees, who had applied for refugee status, are arrested at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing and are never heard from again. That footage became Act 3 in the documentary.

“Seoul Train” was first screened as a work-in-progress in February 2004 at a conference on North Korean Human Rights held in Warsaw. “We showed 20 minutes and there were some North Korean refugees there, and they were sobbing,” said Mr. Butterworth. “That’s when we knew we were on the mark.”

While Mr. Butterworth and Ms. Sleeth sought interviews with the U.N. High commissioner on Refugees and with Chinese and North Korean officials, they continued to e-mail cuts back and forth with Mr. Lubarsky in New York City. “We worked out a system whereby we both had Final Cut Pro and duplicates of the media, so we could e-mail the FCP project files back and forth,” said Mr. Butterworth.

As the film made the festival rounds, they had offers from several broadcasters but ultimately signed with PBS.

The Columbia-DuPont win still hasn’t sunk in, said Mr. Butterworth. “What this means for the film is acknowledgement that this crisis is legitimate, and that’s the most important thing for Lisa and me. We made the film for one reason: to affect change. No doubt in my mind, it’s played that role.”