Busan: South Korean Ferry Disaster Documentary Causes a Stir

South Korea shipwreck - H 2014
AP Images

South Korea shipwreck - H 2014

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, victims' families and festivalgoers gathered to discuss 'The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol'

Undoubtedly the Busan International Film Festival's (BIFF) biggest headline-maker this year, the Sewol ferry disaster documentary The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol, premiered in a sold-out festival screening on Monday.

It was attended by victims' families, top filmmakers, festivalgoers and members of the press.

Co-directed by journalist Lee Sang-ho and documentary filmmaker Ahn Hae-ryong, The Truth accuses the South Korean government of incompetence and a cover-up for the April 16 ferry disaster that resulted in 304 dead or missing. The filmmakers hope that their work will help shed light on the truth as the investigation of the highly politicized incident continues.

"Most of the things reported through the press have been lies. The government had an intricate plan to cover up its botched [handling of the rescue] and intended to control the media," said co-director Lee during a packed Q&A session after the screening. "As time passed, Sewol was quickly being forgotten. I felt the need to bring it to the screen and did so with director [Ahn Hae-ryong], who has been making documentaries for 20 years. We put together the project in just a short amount of time in order to premiere it at Busan."

Lee was fired from MBC (Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation), one of Korea's three major broadcasters, while covering the incident for becoming "too involved," he said.

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The journalist added that the film is "far from being perfect in terms of cinematic value," but hopes it can inspire other filmmakers to tackle the subject.

Several top local and international filmmakers were among the audience. Joshua Oppenheimer, director of last year's Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing, said he was struck by the "incredibly incompetent rescue mission" depicted in the film and was led to question the role of the media in Korea and elsewhere.

"It is sad, pitiful and infuriating. I hope the film can help push for the Sewol Special Bill," Chung Ji-young, the veteran Korean director whose film National Security created a stir at Busan in 2012, told The Hollywood Reporter, referring to a nationwide campaign calling for an official inquiry into the incident. Chung and some 1,000 other Korean filmmakers have been holding events to promote such a bill during the festival.

On the eve of the festival's opening on Oct. 1, some of the victims' families hand-delivered a letter to festival chairman and Busan Mayor Seo Byung-soo protesting the film's screening, calling the film politically one-sided. Several Korean filmmakers' organizations have petitioned for the artistic freedom of the festival, while other politicians urged the festival to cancel the premiere.

Regarding the opposition by the families, Lee said that "the victims' families are not experts in diving" and probably protested because they were "not fully aware of the situation." Added the journalist: "What the victims' families want right now is to have the facts revealed. I believe they will side with us after watching the film."

Several members of the victims' families were spotted among the audience, shedding tears while listening to the conversation and applauding at the end.

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Lee, however, voiced concern about distributing the film in Korea. "The Busan Film Festival might be the last chance to witness the uncomfortable truth [about the disaster]. But we are doing our best to bring the movie to local theaters sometime this month," he said.

"I've been to the Busan Film Festival many times and I've never seen such a commotion," said 22-year-old university student Kim Yui-ie. "I really hope more people will be able to watch the film and that this won't be short-lived hype."