Snipers, a hermit, the hermit kingdom and the mother of all flying joints make an appearance in this week’s top videos.
Some burning questions answered in these stories:
• Why are some of the most resource-rich countries in Africa still so poor?
• If you eschew all human contact for three decades, can you still escape the Kardashians?
• What exactly does 17 million pounds of pot look like when it is rolled up into a single joint and sent aloft in space?
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“Escape from North Korea,” Ann Shin for The New York Times’ Op-Docs
“Even if I die trying, I want to get out of this country.”
Those are the words of Sook-ja, one of the North Koreans profiled in this gripping New York Times Op-Doc adapted from the documentary “The Defector: Escape from North Korea.”
Gaining unprecedented access, filmmaker Ann Shin shadows a group of North Korean refugees as they sneak out of the country – a place so forbidding and isolated that it’s known as “the hermit kingdom.” She tracks them as they make the perilous 3,000-mile journey through China to asylum in Thailand and, ultimately, South Korea.
There are several tense, sweaty-palm moments along the way. At any minute, the refugees could be discovered and deported back to North Korea, where they would face long prison sentences, torture and, in some cases, the death penalty.
The refugees are led by a man who calls himself “Dragon,” a broker who is himself a defector and says he has helped 500 North Koreans escape the country.
“We have to go completely undercover; we have to act like spies,” Dragon warns his charges.
Dragon describes himself as a rescuer who helps desperate refugees rather than a “shady guy doing illegal work.” However, the film takes a dark turn once the defectors reach South Korea and safety. When Dragon tracks them down and demands payment for his services, his demeanor transforms from encouraging to threatening.
“You lied to me,” he hisses into the phone. “ … Don’t live your life like this, you little brat.”
“Ground Zero: Syria (Part 7): Snipers of Aleppo,” Vice
“Snipers of Aleppo” is part of an ongoing series by videographer Robert King chronicling life during the Syrian civil war in raw and sometimes harrowing vignettes. In this installment, King profiles the rebel snipers of war-ravaged Aleppo, talking to them in a dingy, bombed-out building as they stare through their scopes and reflect on the war, occasionally pausing to fire off a few rounds.
King finds that the Syrian conflict in Aleppo has morphed into a slower-paced but still deadly sniper war, fought largely out of sight by men who lie in wait and pick off their enemies one by one, day after day. The streets below where the snipers are perched are populated with creepy mannequins that the rebels have rigged with explosives, in case government forces retake the city.
We meet soldiers like a 16-year-old sharpshooter and a team leader who was a tailor in his former life. Another sniper brags that he is willing not only to die for the cause, but to sacrifice all nine of his sons as well. We’re told that the man fulfilled at least part of his vision – hours after the interview was filmed, he was killed in the fighting.
The most disturbing moments involve watching the remaining residents of Aleppo try to carry on with their daily lives. Pedestrians are forced to scurry across the street, ducking their heads as the sound of gunfire pops in the background. As the people on the streets scatter, you listen in as the snipers argue about whether a target is a civilian or a plain-clothes soldier.
How do they know if their target is a civilian or not? “That’s easy,” says one sniper. “The soldier tends to hide and run.”
“Stealing Africa,” Christoffer Guldbrandsen for Why Poverty?
Earlier this week, world leaders attending the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland agreed to crack down on tax evasion and corporate tax avoidance. An estimated $160 billion in taxes is lost from developing countries every year because corporations dodge paying their fair share.
Filmmaker Christoffer Guldbrandsen tackles this subject in his documentary, “Stealing Africa,” part of the Why Poverty? series on PBS and the BBC. The film examines the paradox of Zambia, a country that boasts the third-largest copper reserves on the planet but is ranked among the 20 poorest nations. While Zambia’s copper mines have netted an estimated $29 billion over the last 10 years, 60 percent of the country’s population lives on less than $1 a day.
“We are wealthy, yet we are poor,” says Wylbur Simuusa, Zambia’s minister of mines.
Taking viewers from the mines of Africa to the chateaus of Switzerland, the film painstakingly reconstructs how the country’s biggest assets essentially have been stolen by Western corporations.
“Maine Hermit Faces Jail – and Fame,” The New York Times
For almost 30 years, a small town in rural Maine was plagued by a mysterious – and persistent – thief. The burglar would steal food and household items with such regularity that victims started to notice a personal preference in the pilfered items – peanut butter, taken; tuna fish, left behind.
The mystery finally was solved earlier this year when police caught the thief in a dragnet using motion sensors. It turns out that the perpetrator was a hermit who had been living alone in a hidden makeshift camp in the woods since 1986. He had lived solely off of the food, fuel, tools and clothing he took from nearby homes in the course of as many as 1,000 burglaries. In the words of one state trooper – who must be played by Frances McDormand (circa her “Fargo” years) in any future film adaptation – “Everything he had other than the glasses on his face were stolen.”
The story of the North Pond Hermit has captured the imagination of the state, inspiring songs, marriage proposals and even an eponymous sandwich, though many of his longtime victims haven’t found the story quite so amusing. (My favorite detail of the hermit’s exile is that despite the fact he hadn’t spoken to another human being for decades, he still knew who the Kardashians were.) Either way, this video is an interesting tale of a man who tried to escape society but has now unintentionally become a celebrity.
“He is very much someone who wants to be completely alone, and yet he has become the most famous person in the state of Maine,” says the district attorney in charge of prosecuting his case. “It is ironic.”
“All Your Pot Are Belong to Us,” The Center for Investigative Reporting
From 2005 to 2011, American authorities seized 17 million pounds of marijuana along the U.S.-Mexico border. That’s a lot of pot.
But how do you get your head around visualizing just how much weed that is? What exactly does 17 million pounds of pot look like, say, in relation to the Statue of Liberty? How many joints could be made out of that stash?
One journalist at The Center for Investigative Reporting was determined to find out. Using a lot of algorithms I don’t understand (calculating the width, length and volume of the typical joint, etc.), news applications developer Michael Corey came up with this very funny and innovative visualization, which has the distinction of being the first video to bring together the Sydney Opera House, the All Your Base Are Belong to Us meme, and a giant flying, intergalactic blunt. If you want to nerd out on the specifics of the painstaking math behind the graphics, Corey breaks it down here.
The video links to a larger interactive with more detailed maps and information, but if you’re pressed for time, this 1½-minute video will give you a satisfying quick hit.
Amanda Pike is the producer for The I Files, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. The I Files selects and showcases the best investigative videos from around the Web and across the world. Major contributors include CIR, The New York Times, BBC, ABC, Al-Jazeera, Vice, the Investigative News Network and many more. You can follow Amanda on Twitter: @AmandaHPike. This column first appeared on Salon.com.