N.B. The following Q&A took place at the premiere of The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (다이빙벨) at the 19th Busan Film Festival (BIFF), on October 6th, 2014.
Please note – the opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the people articulating them. What follows has been transcribed from the translation given by the BIFF translator at the event.
Translator: “the festival people are tense because the mayor threatened to cut off funding if the festival shows this film, and of course the people who made this documentary are also tense because there might be ultra-conservative people who would come and try to mess up this conference.”
The directors come on to the stage to applause.
Moderator: “How do you feel about your film being screened here at the Busan Film Festival?”
Director Lee: “There was a lot of controversy over this case, so I will answer frankly and honestly to any questions you might have. Because of the time constraints, I was not able to make the film as ‘complete’ as I had wanted. It’s only God who can take us back to April 16th, the day of the tragedy, but the least we can do is to go back and investigate and find the facts surrounding the incident. I hope that as many people as possible can get to see this film, and I hope that this interest in this film will translate to continued interest in the Sewol tragedy.”
Question: “I’d like to ask, when did you start planning this film? There are some cuts of news footage, so when you were covering this incident, was that when you started planning this film? Or maybe after the uproar had died down? Is that when you started planning this film?”
Director Lee: “Simply put, just like all of you, I was there at Paengmok Harbor and it was there that I realised that the truth was sinking with the ferry and with the children. Most of the mainstream media, whatever they were reporting, was not true, they were lies. And behind the scenes were the power, those in power who wanted to cover up their mistakes, cover their ass. So for three or four days it was a very critical time when the truth was in danger of being covered up forever, so that’s why we kept as much footage as possible, and we tried to film everything. We concentrated back then on the diving bell because we thought the diving bell would be critical in revealing the lies that the government was telling through the coast guard. And there was this sense of urgency because it seemed that people were starting to forget, trying to put the tragedy behind them already, when nothing had been found and discovered. So that’s why we wanted to make this film, in order to keep the memory alive. And we wanted to get it screened at the Busan International Film Festival where there would be a lot of global attention as well, so we were pressed for time, so we were running up against a very tight deadline in making this film.”
Question: “You’re here not as a journalist, but as a director. If you have anything that you were not able to say through this film, would you like to share that with us? And Mr Lee Jong-in, the owner of the diving bell, was there a message that he wants to convey? As a member of the audience and as a Korean citizen, I would like to send my encouragement and support for all the people who made this film possible.”
Director Lee: “I’d like to answer both questions. Mr Lee Jong-in, CEO of the diving technology, he did not have a lot of deep thoughts, he was of the same heart and mind as the rest of the citizens. He didn’t make any calculations, he just rushed to the scene because he thought that he could help, because he did have the technology, and he had technology and equipment that the coast guard and the navy did not have and so he offered his help. But during the time when the film was being made, he realised that he was up against something that he could not overcome. And he knew that once the film was made he would be at the center of another controversy yet again, so there were people who asked him to lie low, but he cooperated with the film making because he wanted the truth to be uncovered. I’m a little nervous, so I forgot the other question. Oh yes, as a journalist. I’ve been working as a journalist for 20 years. I was there on the scene as a journalist but as a filmmaker, what disheartened me the most, what broke my heart the most, was leaving out footage that I thought was appropriate for the film. For example, Lee Jong-in was kicked out after the first attempt, and then the journalists found out that the coast guard and the rescue team from the government had attempted to put in a diving bell, their own diving bell, which was a fake diving bell. And that was not in the film. And as you know, there was a lot of online manipulation of public opinion during the presidential elections, and that kind of public opinion manipulation went on during and surrounding the Sewol tragedy, and I was unable to touch on that during the film. So I found that quite regretful. And what really broke my heart was that this diving bell, that was cutting edge technology, there was huge potential for it to save lives, and it had been in operation for 2 hours, compared to the few minutes of the other divers, but then we were threatened, there was even a murder attempt on us, and they were cubing the press. And so I found [not including] that most regretful. We even have legal charges being pressed against us right now.”
Question: “There’s controversy over whether this film will eventually be shown or not, so I’m quite taken aback by this press attention. I think it’s this press attention and media attention that gathered so many people here today. And personally I think there are a lot of people in Korea who are starting to forget, they’re trying to erase this whole tragedy from their memories, and so I’m worried about that because we’ve not achieved anything and there’s 10 people who are still missing, and the families of these missing people as well as those who have passed away, they’re all still grieving and in great suffering. Do you have a message for the Korean public?”
Director Lee: “I believed in fair journalism, and that’s why I was working as a reporter for a television station, but I got kicked out, I was dismissed, but I want to continue to try to pursue the truth now this time through film, and I’d like to thank all of you for coming. As you know there was a New York Times article today that after the Sewol tragedy, right afterwards the public was one, they were united in praying for the safe rescue, but then they’ve become divided these days. The bereaved families, they’re getting stoned in public on the streets. I hope that we can go back to, at least mentally and emotionally, to right after the incident and become one again in pursuing the truth. And I hope that through this film [I] will contribute in whatever way to protecting this film as well as protecting the bereaved families.”
Question: “As a college student I really wanted to check out this film and one of the messages is that there was some force, some hidden forces, that were interfering with the diving bell rescue operation. Who do you think would be the people behind it?”
Director Lee: “I will give it to you simply. Since April 16th, what I wanted to know was, why did the children have to die? Why weren’t they rescued? Why didn’t the state protect these children? And as you saw through this diving bell fiasco, survivors who were 30-40 meters underwater, if you just drag them up out of the water, they will die anyway. As you saw in the film, if you go down 75 meters and you dive for a few minutes you still have to decompress for about 30 minutes. So these kids, they were in the ship, and they were trapped inside for a few days, so they have to come up above the water very very slowly, or else they’ll die anyway. But not having such measures at hand, and not coming up with a concrete plan for rescuing them is murder. It’s just murder. The coast guard, not even once, they have never been trained for underwater rescue at all. All they did was float around and circle around the capsized [ship]. And then there was the navy, who were trained. They attempted to go into the scene and start rescue work twice, but they were refused. So it would be the coast guard, the navy and everyone else. Who controls the coast guard as well as the navy? Who has the power? It’s just the president. The president is the only one who can control everyone, or give commands to everyone who was involved in the rescue.”
Question: “It was very difficult for me to get a ticket to come to see this film and I was shocked. I was not there at the scene, and the only thing I got was the media reports about the diving bell, so I myself thought that it was a failure. And now that I’ve seen this film, I’m truly shocked. And [there’s] so much unfairness. Lee Jong-in is also a victim and I think that everyone in Korea should see this film and I was in tears most of the time. [Audience member begins crying] There’s a limit to how many people can see this film here at the festival, we only have journalists and film festival goers, so I’m lucky that I was able to be one of the few to see this film, and I hope this film will be shown to the wider public in the future. There are people here, and also a lot of journalists so I hope that we will all work together to get this film shown to many people. So my question is, do you think that would be a possibility? Will you be making that effort to get this film shown to more people? And if you have the citizen’s support, the public’s support, I’m sure that this will be released in theaters so that more people can get to see it, more people from the ordinary public. Are you making that effort? Do you have such plans?”
Director Lee: “Well thank you for being moved to tears, first of all. I think getting this shown in public, public screenings for this film will be very very difficult, it will be tough. Facing the uncomfortable truth, in a theater like this, in a public setting like this, this may be the last chance. But we are making that attempt to get this released in theaters and we are working with a deadline of the end of October, so we are making such efforts. I hope that you will all work together to protect this film.”
Question by Oscar-nominated director Joshua Oppenheimer (Act of Killing, The Look of Silence): “We see in your film this incredibly incompetent…or [rather] a rescue effort that’s undertaken in bad faith. And I guess I have two questions. First of all, is it merely incompetence or do you believe that there’s something more going on? And secondly, can you talk a little bit about why the media in Korea, and I don’t think Korea’s alone in this, but why do the feel the media and the mainstream media is so…appears to be so uncritical, so they are placed [into a] terrible stenographers function?”
Director Lee: “There was the Indonesian version of The Killing Fields recently where there were ordinary and innocent citizens killed [referring to director Oppenheimer’s work] and I’d like to thank you [director Oppenheimer] for deliberately coming to watch this film. Ineptitude or incompetence is the government’s excuse, it’s their main excuse. And yes the government right now is so incompetent that they want to get rid of their incompetent officials, but then they don’t have substitutes, because everyone else is also incompetent. When such a huge tragedy happened, the government did not have in place a system to deal with this tragedy. It means that the state was absent in this case. If the coast guard was incompetent, then they should be taken away and should be replaced by someone more competent, but such decisions, such common sense decisions were not made. It shows how lacking the government is right now in communication skills, and this lack of communication skills has led to this tragedy, led to expanding this tragedy, and I hope that this film will contribute to revealing the incompetence of the government. And the media, the Korean media in this case, they were not just serving the state, but the current government. The media has a say in the government, they are part of the government, and have a stake in the current government. That is why the media are the people who are the most afraid of the president being criticized, because this will reflect on them as well, because they are on the same side. That is why they sent out garbage instead of the truth and this is proof that they are stake holders in this current government. They are not just stenographers, they are stake holders in this government.”
Question: “On the internet I heard yesterday that some members of the grieving families were opposed to this film being shown and of course the Busan city government is saying that they don’t want this film to be screened. So have any of the bereaved families watched this film? And if so, what was their response? And what are your values as a journalist? You must have some value system that you adhere to as a journalist, but in the process of reporting [the incident] the journalists in action went overboard in interviewing students who had just come up, just been rescued.”
Director Lee: “I think I’m the journalist who was most critised after the tragedy, because on the scene I was an actor in this whole incident, not just a journalist [with an] objective point of view. Didn’t the president say, before she was president, she critised the then president Roh Moo-hyun saying that if you can’t rescue just one person from Iraq, then you don’t deserve to be called a government. But now that she is in office, there were more than three hundred passengers, young passengers, on board the ship and they were left there, trapped there, for days, and not a single one of them was rescued. And in this kind of situation, objectivity is not the value that I should be pursuing, in this kind of case. For example, I clung to the diving bell in trying to attach it to the weight, so yes I was intervening, I was in the scene, but I would continue to do that even if I were to do it again. And the bereaved families, unfortunately they are not diving experts. What I’m saying when I say that the state was absent on the scene, is that there was no control tower. There were many demands made by the grieving families, of course, and it’s only natural. But then the rescue work, and the pursuit of truth right now, it’s all being led by the bereaved families despite their lack of expertise, and the state is not helping them out at all. And the few who were rescued, were rescued by civilian fishermen who just happened to be passing by. And of course it’s only natural that the families don’t have any knowledge about rescue work. And as you saw they hated the journalists, they hated the press, they had to lean on the press and whatever pieces of information that the press gave them, they would cling onto that. In that kind of situation, where was the state in marshaling this confusion?”
Question: “I see this film as kind of a defense for Mr. Lee Jong-in. So in this whole tragedy, what position does this diving bell have? And do you really think that the rescue attempt using diving bell technology was not a failure?”
Director Lee: “Thank you for those short questions. We are all sinners because we were not able to rescue a single person. I came here dressed in black. And the completeness of the film, I don’t have any pride in the quality of the film itself, but it’s the only film that has come out now that deals head on with the Sewol tragedy, and I hope that there will be many more films to follow that can shed more light and maintain interest in this incident.”
Moderator: “Unfortunately we don’t have enough time [for more questions]. Actually I spent a sleepless night, last night. I’ve been with the festival for about 10 years now, working as a moderator whenever the festival has come, and I’ve never stepped on to the red carpet myself. Whenever I moderate for these GVs in the Wide Angle [category] I get to meet so many faces, dark faces and gloomy faces of Korean society from hospices, from women workers in the labour movement, and environment[al] issues. Documentaries are a means of holding on to things we should not forget in order for society to progress. So I hope that these kinds of documentaries will continue to be made in the future, for the benefit of Korean society.”