Almost a year ago, Duke alumni had a winning presence at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Now, the Duke community will have the opportunity to see one of these works from the comfort of their own screens.
“Assassins” tells the story of the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam, which caused international news furor when CCTV footage showed two young women confront him in broad daylight — with a lethal nerve gas slathered on their hands.
The documentary film follows the pair of women, exploring the twisty sociopolitical path that led them into the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and up to Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong-un, then-and-current leader of North Korea.
Duke will host a private virtual screening of the film on Tuesday, Feb. 2, immediately followed by a talkback session with director and producer Ryan White (T ’04) and producers Jessica Hargrave, Doug Bock Clark (T ’09) and Grace Oathout (T ’16). The event’s sponsors include Duke Entertainment, Media & Arts Network (DEMAN), the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) and the Asian American and Diaspora Studies Program.
Ryan White co-founded production company Tripod Media with Jessica Hargrave after graduating from Duke. “Assassins” marks the second time in two consecutive years that the team has had a film accepted into Sundance, and the film currently has a 100% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
A serendipitous DEMAN event marked the beginnings of a partnership that would lead to the creation of the documentary. “Assassins” takes inspiration from executive producer Doug Bock Clark’s 2017 GQ article, “The Untold Story of Kim Jong-nam’s Assassination.” When Clark and White met at the event, White took inspiration after hearing about Clark’s investigative work into the dramatic and messy story. Now, with the virtual screening bringing Clark and White back to Duke, the story of how “Assassins'' came to be is reaching full circle.
Oathout, an associate producer at Tripod Media, spoke with Recess about the film and her own connections to DEMAN.
“My freshman year was one of the first years they were hosting DEMAN in the fall at Duke, and I actually attended a panel that Ryan was on.” When Oathout’s senior year came around, she was able to reconnect with White, telling him: “I’ve actually met you before; we met at a DEMAN panel I attended my freshman year!”
Oathout praised DEMAN’s capacity to create meaningful connections between Duke alumni and students with aspirations for the entertainment industry.
“[It’s] a great example of one of the things DEMAN does very well. I was able to tell Ryan I was very familiar with his work… it gave Ryan a sense of ‘Oh, this is someone who has been interested in documentaries for a very long time.’”
When asked about why Duke students should be interested in “Assassins” and the story behind it, Oathout highlighted the gender issues central to the story. As Clark explores in his GQ story, Siti Aisyah and Đoàn Thị Hương, the two women implicated in Kim’s death, had no idea what they had done.
“When I was an undergrad, there was certainly a lot of engagement around women’s issues as it was playing out in the U.S. with college sexual assault scandals and disparities between men and women’s treatment as undergrads,” Oathout said. “What I would say though, is there is a lot of focus on how that plays out on college campuses in the US, but not as much focus internationally.”
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“Assassins” weaves through four countries in its 104 minute runtime: Indonesia and Vietnam, where the two women are from; Malaysia, where the murder occurred; and North Korea, the dominion of Kim Jong-nam’s powerful half-brother.
“Not only do you learn a lot about international relations between those countries but specifically the treatment of those women,” Oathout said. “How, in a lot of ways, we think these two women were seen as dispensable — and that’s why we felt it was important that this story be told.”
The screening and Q&A will run from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. this Tuesday, and online registration can be found here.