The world premiere of a documentary which has been at the center of a controversy at this year’s BIFF took place under the intense gaze of local and international media and heavy security from government officials.
At the late morning screening of “The Truth Shall Not Sink with Sewol” on Monday, there was a significant security presence outside the shopping mall in which the theater is located. Looking out of place, one uniformed officer was among several dark-suited men standing in a circle speaking in low voices. As more reporters started arriving, they suddenly dispersed.
When directors Lee Sang-ho and Ahn Hae-ryong arrived, they were whisked off by BIFF officials into an electronics store where a secret passage to the theater is located. Looking nervous but smiling, Lee and Ahn took their seats and as officials from Busan City Hall, BIFF and the Korean Film Council looked on, the theater manager announced nervously, “enjoy the show.”
The documentary chronicles the aftermath of the April sinking of a passenger ferry which caused the death and disappearance of 304 people, many of whom were children on a school trip. Focusing on a diving bell, a piece of equipment from a private diving company, it purports to “uncover the truth” behind the failed attempts to save lives. At the time of the rescue, the Korean media reported on the diving bell and its owner, Lee Jong-in as having “caused severe disruptions” in the Coast Guard’s official rescue efforts. Most Korean media reported that after causing delays and disruptions, Lee failed to rescue anyone and pulled out of his own accord.
To this day, Lee Jong-in is portrayed in the mainstream Korean media as a fraudulent conman who only took part to drum up business for his diving firm who caused further anguish by raising the hopes of the victims’ families. Lee has kept silent about what has happened since.
Using actual footage and interviews, the film claims that it was the Coast Guard who disrupted Lee’s efforts behind-the-scenes while manipulating the media to give out false reports.
The atmosphere after the screening was at a fever pitch with some openly sobbing as more officials and reporters poured into the auditorium for a Q&A with the directors which lasted 30 minutes. A woman who was clearly moved by the film with tears falling down her cheeks, asked the directors how they will be able to get the movie into regular theaters due to pressure from the government, prompting director Lee to burst into tears.
American director Joshua Oppenheimer (“The Act of Killing,” “The Look of Silence”) asked if “incompetence was the only thing the government wanted to cover up and why the majority of the Korean media only function as the government’s stenographers.” Lee responded, “It’s not just their incompetence but also their unwillingness to listen to the people. It’s a regime unwilling to communicate to its people and is thus more concerned about hiding its incompetence than saving lives. The reporters were not stenographers, but stakeholders.”