Busan Pushes Forward With Controversial Ferry Disaster Documentary

South Korea shipwreck - H 2014
AP Images

South Korea shipwreck - H 2014

The film fest will show 'Diving Bell' despite protests from victims' families and its very own chairman

The Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) will proceed to premiere the controversial ferry disaster documentary Diving Bell — despite protests from victims' families and one of its very own, BIFF chairman and Busan mayor Seo Byung-soo.

"We will be showing it as planned," BIFF festival director Lee Yong-kwan tells The Hollywood Reporter.

"We felt careful when we were initially programming the lineup," he says — perhaps evidenced by a July 21 BIFF newsletter in which the fest's head programmer, Kim Ji-suk, expresses his condolences to victims' families — "but the festival isn't new to showing controversial films and we couldn't find a reason to back down." Last year BIFF created headlines for screening Gureombi — The Wind Is Blowing by Cho Sung-bong, a filmmaker and liberal activist who had previously been arrested for breaching South Korea's national security law.

Co-directed by Lee Sang-ho and Ahn Hae-ryong, Diving Bell portrays the namesake rescue equipment that was employed to no avail and other disputable aspects of the largely failed rescue mission of the Sewol Ferry. The April accident killed hundreds of passengers, mostly teenage students, and has had a traumatic nationwide effect comparable to 9/11 in the U.S.

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On Wednesday a committee of victims' family members made a public statement at the National Assembly demanding that the festival cancel the premiere — saying that it "hurts bereaved family members wishing to move on" by showing a film that depicts "a device [the diving bell] that was nothing short of a test experiment that failed to rescue even a single victim."

Even BIFF chairman Seo told local daily The Kyunghyang Shinmun that he "would prefer that the festival not show the film." A spokesperson for the Busan mayor said, "This is the official position of the mayor and Busan City, but there is no pressure on the festival to change the programming." Most media inquiries have been directed to the Busan metropolitan government rather than to festival organizers.

Cinema Dal, the distributor of Diving Bell, has canceled the press preview that was slated to take place before the festival, which runs Oct. 2-11. A spokesperson said they are planning to hold a press conference for the film during the festival.

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"It was the press and the National Maritime Police that failed rather than the diving bell," tweeted co-director Lee, a journalist who made headlines for criticizing problematic aspects of the Sewol rescue mission and local media coverage.

Meanwhile, BIFF organizers said during a press conference earlier this month that the festival will pay tribute to victims by setting up booths featuring yellow ribbons, which have become an iconic symbol in Korea to mourn the tragedy. Other local events, including the Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) and International Women's Film Festival in Seoul (IWFFIS), have made solemn gestures to the victims.

A group of Korean cineastes will also hold a petition for the special Sewol bill, a nationwide movement calling for a full public inquiry into the accident, which remains under investigation. The Korean Filmmakers Coalition petitioning for the special Sewol bill includes esteemed filmmakers Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Stoker) and Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer) as well as top actors Song Kang-ho (Snowpiercer) and Kim Hye-soo (The Face Reader).