“The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol” – 2014 Busan Review

Several months have passed since the conclusion of the 2014 Busan International Film Festival, but the fallout from one documentary shown at the event continues.  Of the 314 films on offer, none generated more attention than a 77-minute work granted a mere pair of public screenings (11 a.m. on a Monday and 4 p.m. on a Thursday).  However, the criticism swirling around “The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol” (다이빙벨) began before the start of the Festival. It had less to do with its execution and more to do with the topic: the sinking of the MV Sewol Ferry on Apr. 16, 2014, that claimed the lives of 304 people, most of them high school students who were on a field trip.  International outrage ensued, and the underbelly of South Korean society – a tangled situation involving the national government, the private sector, cultural norms and even religion – was quickly exposed.  The outcry was such that pressure mounted from the Busan mayor (doubling as the Festival chairman) and some of the victims’ families to remove the film from the event altogether.

The documentary stayed on the program, but it became clear that very few people would be able to see it.  There was no advance press screening, no digital version in the viewing room for journalists, protests from filmmakers outside the main venue and criticisms from reporters about the lack of opportunities to watch the film (some claimed to be barred from access, whereas others were told that both public screenings were sold out – a situation that I and a couple of fellow writers can confirm was not true, as the theater was half-full on both occasions).

Still, while Busan organizers apologized for the controversy, they did not apologize for showing the film, and one must applaud their conviction behind its subject matter.  The title suggests a grandiose exposé into the accident, but maverick journalist turned filmmaker Lee Sang-ho, who co-directed the film with Ahn Hae-ryong, focused on just one aspect of that complicated web: the diving bell, a contraption that could potentially speed up divers’ underwater search for bodies.  Invented by Lee Jong-in, who was quickly portrayed in mainstream media as an uninformed mad scientist causing more disruption than help, the device was intended to assist divers in their search for victims.  But as events in the film are chronologically framed by numbers – the accumulation of days passed since the accident and the slightly decreasing tally of missing persons – the urgency of recovery causes Lee the journalist to double as an assistant to Lee the scientist.  Along the way, camera footage reveals some shocking developments: obstacles thrown in the Lees’ path when they attempt to use the diving bell; the inability of journalists to access key geographical locations of the investigation to gather information; and hopeful promises turned into major setbacks.  One particularly gut-wrenching scene that took place nine days after the accident involved scores of angry parents surrounding two Korean Coast Guard officials, whose bent heads and sorrowful expressions in response to painful questions told the whole story.

By inserting himself into the film as a main character, Lee Sang-ho does not hold back in relaying his personal opinions on the situation while striving to show what really happened beyond what was depicted in news reports.  Throughout his investigation, the former MBC TV reporter (on his own with an outfit called GoBalnews.com) endured death threats and even casually mentioned in the middle of the film that he suffered a stroke during production.  Given his background, one could have expected an extremely biased report that already pointed the finger of blame before filming began.  Instead, Lee Sang-ho provides a more objective work than expected in his quest to try and make a difference in a rescue effort gone terribly wrong.  As evidenced by the tears shed by spectators at both Busan screenings and calls in late January for the Festival executive director to resign, “The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol” has clearly hit a nerve, and dares to continue the conversation about a tragedy that some would rather forget.

“The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol” made its world premiere at the 2014 Busan International Film Festival.