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Busan Festival Hit By Sewol Ferry Controversy

SEOUL — With barely a week till it opens its doors on the 19th edition, the Busan International Film Festival (Oct. 2-11) has become embroiled in controversy connected to the already highly-politicized Sewol ferry disaster.

The festival has scheduled screenings of the documentary “Diving Bell” which discusses a particular piece of diving equipment, use of which might have saved lives in the largely failed rescue attempt. The film depicts this as part of a clash between public and private sectors. The film is co-directed by journalist Lee Sang-ho and documentary filmmaker Ahn Hae-ryong.

According to a former member of the Busan Film Commission, writing in Cine 21 magazine, the festival has come under pressure from the city mayor Seo Byung-soo to remove the film.

Seo, who is a member of the country’s ruling Saenuri party and who is in his first term as mayor, has been criticized by some media for trying to interfere in the festival’s supposedly independent programming. The city provides close to half of the festival’s funding. Other media have said that the families of the victims would want the film removed from the festival.

The issue however has been further stoked by the intervention of National Assembly member Ha Tae-kyung, who represents the district in which BIFF takes place. Ha has criticized the “low standard” of BIFF programmers, and in a press release, demanded that BIFF officials make a public apology and remove the documentary from the lineup.

The film’s distributor, Cinema Dal, told Variety that, due to the scale of the controversy, media will no longer be welcome to see the film at its scheduled pre-festival preview.

The April sinking of the Sewol ferry caused the death of 304 people, including some 250 school students. With the exact cause of the disaster still unknown, the government has been accused of incompetence and a cover-up.

The Korean film industry has become deeply embroiled in the highly charged and deeply divisive issue.

Several leading directors and actors have formed a group called the ‘Korean Filmmakers Coalition Petitioning for the Special Sewol Bill,’ which is calling for the passage of a law that will authorize a full public enquiry. The group includes celebrated directors Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”) and Bong Joon-ho (“Snowpiercer”), and leading actors Song Kang-ho (“Snowpiercer”) and Moon So-ri (“Oasis,” “Peppermint Candy”).

A spokesperson for the coalition said that a press conference will be held during the festival in order to gather more support for the special bill.

BIFF is no stranger to political controversy. In 2003 it screened 7 North Korean films despite opposition from right-wing groups. In 2012, its programming included Jung Ji-young’s “National Security,” which depicted the real torture of a left-wing politician at the hands of a dictatorial regime.

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