February 3, 2020

'In the Absence' Examines the Sewol Ferry Disaster

From Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam's 'In the Absence.' Courtesy of 'Field of Vision.'

In the Absence begins with the usual narrative markers of a ship tragedy: a drone camera sweeps over the site, we hear a 911 call, security camera shows ominous developments inside the vessel, and we read a title: "On the night of 15 April 2014, the Sewol ferry departed Incheon Port, Korea. 476 passengers, including 325 students on a school trip to Jeju Island, were on board." Next morning the ship began to sink amid confusion and delayed governmental rescue efforts, and nearly an hour later the captain fled with half the passengers still aboard. The media reported that all had survived. But the Sewol tilted and sank, taking with it 304 victims, mostly high school students. The subsequent inquest caused widespread public anger, notably the historic and massive grassroots Candlelight Protests of late 2016, and contributed to the 2017 impeachment and resignation of President Park Geun-hye. Many victims were not recovered from the ship until three years after the sinking, and some remain missing. The tragedy has led to shifts in the political and media infrastructure of South Korea, but its lessons still risk sinking into obscurity and forgetfulness.

There have been many documentaries on the Sewol tragedy and the scars it left on the South Korean psyche. But Director Yi Seung-jun and Producer Gary Byung-seok Kam's short In the Absence, the first South Korean film nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject, focuses on the ordinary people who acted when officials would not: the parents of the children unaccounted for, and the civilian divers who risked their lives in recovery efforts when official divers proved incompetent. After winning various prizes, the 29-minute film, which was nominated for an IDA Documentary Award, can be seen on The New Yorker's YouTube channel, where it has attained over two million views, as well as on Field of Vision.

The following interview was conducted through email.

DOCUMENTARY: What made you decide to make a short film about such an enormous tragedy?

YI SEUNG-JUN & GARY BYUNG-SEOK KAM: In October 2016, we were developing an idea about a film on the Sewol disaster. A few documentaries had been made, but the theme and tone of the films were more or less the same: they were investigative films focusing on questions like what caused the sinking, and who was responsible for this tragedy. 

But we thought, That is not the only story we could tell about the tragedy, and we wanted to approach it from a different angle. So when Field of Vision contacted us in January 2017 to make a short film about the Candle Protest in Korea, we suggested the Sewol issue. Dealing with the Candle Protest in a short documentary was very difficult, we thought. We would need to provide a good social-political context to deliver the story of the protest and the impeachment of the president, but we thought it would be very challenging to do that in a short film. So, we suggested to Field of Vision that the Sewol story would fit for a short documentary. Also, the Sewol tragedy was one of the reasons that drove the citizens to the protest. Field of Vision liked the idea, and that's how we started. 

D: How would you compare this short film to longer documentary treatments of the disaster? For example, Baram: Wind of No Return (Dir.: Lee Seung-Ku, 2018)—have you seen it, and what do you think about its emphasis [on the parents of the unrecovered victims]?

YS & GBK: We know the director, but the film has not been released in Korea yet, as we understand. There are more filmmakers making films on the same Sewol subject in Korea now. We think it reflects the fact that there are still many questions to be answered and the truth to be told regarding the tragedy.

D: Can you tell us how you managed to get drone footage, recordings of official communications, vehicle dashcam videos, cellphone video footage, video footage of recovery, and footage of the hearings? Have all of these been published in South Korean media already?

YS & GBK: The South Korean government provided all the footage and voice records to the major news companies and broadcasters at that time, but not to independent filmmakers like us. The victims' family association supported this film and shared everything they had, including the video clips their children sent to them before they were killed. Also, a lawmaker helped us to get the government archives, and independent documentary makers gladly shared some of the files they had.

You can find images of the ferry, the voice recordings and the rescue scenes in the various news clips. But we felt that the media frenzy only consumed the fragmented images of the tragedy, and no one tried to put them all together to see what really happened on that day. So, we decided to reconstruct the day precisely as it happened, and that is what you see in the film, revealing something behind the footage: the absence of the government on that day to protect us. Ironically, the government records mainly used for its bureaucratic internal report have become the evidence to prove their incompetence and systemic frailty, we think. 

D: How did you protect yourself from depression while making this film? 

YS: Even though this is a short film, it took two years to complete. It was extremely difficult to witness the pain, anger and sadness of the victims' families and the divers. But the pain I went through to make this film was nothing compared to theirs. They had been emotionally tortured for years. That's what I kept saying to myself and I tried to do what I could do best for them, which is finishing this film.

GBK: We had numerous nightmares, especially during the rough-cut editing period. The pain, rage and frustration I felt were beyond description when I had to see the raw footage with Seung-jun. But again, mine was nothing to compare what my director had gone through. He was exposed to see the evil face of tragedy again and again during the editing. For my share of the pain, I took it as a small price to pay as a member of the society that killed 304 innocent souls. I felt I had to accept the pain rather than to be depressed. 

D: What is your opinion on why officials didn't begin rescue operations sooner?

YS & GBK: They did begin rescue operations, and we don't think they were late in the initial response. But they didn't know how to deal with the crisis. There was a manual, but that was only in a book. They might be able to recite the manual, but their bodies failed to function. They just ran in various directions, only following the ingrained bureaucracy. No one took the lead. The superiors waited to be reported to; the subordinates waited to be told what to do. This systemic frailty revealed the poignant reality that the country was subject to the tragedies. The government betrayed its mandate and malfunctioned, to the nation's trauma.

D: How have non-Korean audiences reacted differently to this film from Korean viewers?

YS & GBK: In Korea, many people still hesitate to watch this film even though In the Absence has been accessible to the public for ten months since the fifth anniversary of the tragedy, because they know what they will have to see. 

At every screening, we saw non-Korean audiences being shocked and devastated. But very often their thoughts and discussions don't remain about Korean society. In London, they brought up the disaster of the Grenfell Tower fire, and others told us of tragedies that happened in their communities or countries. They empathized with this story because they also have witnessed similar disasters.

D: How has the departure of President Park Geun-hye changed the way South Korean society and media approach the tragedy today? Have attitudes toward it changed?

YS & GBK: The country has been more sensitive about safety issues. The citizens demanded a better social safety system, and the government also tried to keep up with the demands. But we witness various accidents that could have been prevented happening again and again. The sensational approach of the media to the issues continues, and the government often responds with short-term measures. We believe that we need to ask fundamental questions and look into the source of the problems first. If we want to find good answers, we have to ask good questions first. We hope this film will be a good question to start. 

Director Yi Seung-jin (left) and Producer Gary Byung-seok Kam. Courtesy of 'Field of Vision.'

D: Any hints about your next film project(s)?

YS: I don't have any particular plan for my next project. When I was young, I believed society should be happy and (I don't know why, but) I always wished everybody to be happy. But as I grew into an adult and learned that the reality is not a happy one, I felt scared. And this made me become a documentary filmmaker. So whatever it will be, my next project will start with someone or someplace where there is pain or difficulty caused by the system, and the film will question which direction we should take for a better tomorrow.

I also recently completed a feature documentary, Shadow Flowers. Gary and I worked together for four years on this film. It is about a North Korean mother in South Korea, struggling to go back to her family in the North. The film will have its American premiere on February 11 at MoMA Doc Fortnight

In the Absence screens as part of IDA's DocuDay LA, February 8 at 1:00 p.m. at the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills. Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam will participate in a post-screening discussion. Click here for tickets.

Frako Loden is adjunct lecturer in film and ethnic studies at California State University East Bay and Diablo Valley College.