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“I am not exaggerating when I say I really felt like I was living in a spy movie,” says filmmaker Ryan White of crafting Assassins, the documentary exploring the 2017 murder of Kim Jong-nam — the elder half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — at the hands of two young women, who insisted they believed they were participating in a prank show and duped into rubbing a lethal chemical weapon in the victim’s eyes.
Crucial to Assassins‘ storytelling is an abundance of revealing closed-circuit television footage casting a penetrating light on the women’s claims. “There would have been no film without the CCTV footage, and there definitely would not be a film making a case for their innocence,” said White. “We tried everything to get it.” The production was initially denied at every turn, from the Malaysian police and court system to the Kuala Lumpur airport where the assassination took place. Even the women’s defense attorneys had no access to the footage.
Ultimately, however, White’s team obtained stacks of DVDs — containing hundreds of hours of footage from multiple vantage points with no organization or identifiers — from a source he says he cannot reveal. “It wasn’t the police,” he explains, “so we had to be very careful and safe with the footage.” Indeed, the files were uploaded to a burner computer separate from the production’s central system in case they contained catastrophic malware after passing through multiple hands before reaching the filmmakers.
Once assembled into a cohesive narrative over three months, the revelations were astonishing. “Eventually your eyes start to notice what’s happening around the women, and we started to see different faces that were popping up multiple times,” says producer Jessica Hargrave. Interpol and police files identified those faces as North Korean operatives, eerily and subtly orchestrating the women’s actions. “Seeing these men who were watching over them to be sure that they did what they actually did was really chilling,” she says.
“Once we put it all together, we started realizing, ‘Holy shit, this corroborates everything that they’re saying went down,’ ” says White, who admits the process of obtaining and scrutinizing the surveillance footage inspired dread and suspicion behind the scenes. “Making a film about a crime like that, you’re always a little paranoid of, ‘Are you being watched?’ ”
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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