The sinking of the Sewol ferry has left a scar on the psyche of South Korea, more than five years after the devastating tragedy occurred. On the morning of April 16, 2014 the passenger ship with 476 people on board, including hundreds of school kids, began listing dangerously. Relatively quickly the vessel tipped over and began to sink, the disaster recorded by helicopters hovering over the scene. More than 300 people were killed that day, including 250 kids on an outing from Danwon High School.
In the Absence, a haunting short documentary directed by Yi Seung-Jun and produced by Gary Byung-Seok Kam, gives audiences a feeling for how the disaster unfolded in real time, drawing on audio from first responders and government agencies, aerial video from choppers, and cell phone video and text messages of doomed children. The film, released by Field of Vision, has earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short.
“This is an ongoing story because in almost six years’ time there has been huge demand for thorough investigations, but the previous government, they evaded the investigations,” notes producer Kam. “But very recently they launched a new investigation about the incompetence of the government response after they found facts that could have saved more people.”
Deadline spoke with Kam and Seung-Jun in Los Angeles, after they attended the Oscar Luncheon in Hollywood.
DEADLINE: What does the Oscar recognition mean to you?
GARY BYUNG-SEOK KAM: When we started this project, we promised the victims’ families that we will share this story with a bigger audience around the world…We didn’t make this for Korean society alone. The victims’ families often say that every child in the world has to be able to [come back] home in the evening when they say, ‘See you later,’ in the morning. That is basically the responsibility of any government or any community. That’s what they want to deliver or share with a global audience. The nomination really, really helps us share this story, and we are very, very grateful.
DEADLINE: The film meticulously recounts what took place the day of the disaster. What was the effort like to assemble all of the material you drew from?
YI SEUNG-JUN: I myself started filming from 2017 with families [of victims]…The footage from the [incident] and also the footage from the rescue operation of the divers, those were given by my colleagues, film directors, who went out to the spot from the beginning and they started recording the situation…This project was strongly supported by the Victims Family Association, so they provided us with the mobile phone footage and text messages. It was more than 30 terabytes…It was hard for me to see the faces of the victims while the ferry was sinking. It was hard, but the principle was to show the pain [of the families] and where the pain came from.
DEADLINE: You manage to strike a very respectful tone in the film.
SEUNG-JUN: It’s very important for us that even though we made a film, even though we were supported by the Victims Family Association, that does not mean we can do whatever we want. We always talked with the victims’ families…As a documentary filmmaker it is always very important to respect the characters. If they didn’t [consent] to some parts, I never used that footage. It’s a matter of respecting the people living in this world.
KAM: We discussed a lot about our ethics to make a film about that tragedy, not a film to stir up the audience’s voyeuristic interest, not to make them just a spectator but how can we set up this relationship between the audience and the film so that the audience can empathize with the situation.
DEADLINE: In the film we see the captain hop off the Sewol onto a rescue boat while half the passengers were still on board. Why did the students remain on the ship?
KAM: It was definitely really irresponsible for the captain to abandon the ship first. But when you talk about the passengers, especially the students, they were so accustomed to be “told.” They had been educated to be a “good” kid, to listen to orders from elders. So they trusted the adults because they were so accustomed to listening to them. And they just waited [on board]. The Asian education [system] may have affected the response of the students in crisis.
DEADLINE: The government’s response to the unfolding disaster was shockingly poor, but there were some heroes that day. You had fishing boats and commercial vessels rescue passengers, and then these volunteer divers who spent months recovering the bodies of victims.
KAM: We couldn’t include it in the film but it was really, really sad and terrifying when [divers] told us how they retrieved the [bodies of] children because it was so dark in the ferry. They had to hold a guiding rope all the time, so that means that you have to hold every child to take them out…One diver said the bodies were entangled and really in the dark he couldn’t see. But the body wouldn’t let go, so he said he told the girl [victim], ‘Let’s go home. I will take you home.’ And somehow the body got released. He held the girl and brought her back.
DEADLINE: Why did it take three years to raise the Sewol?
SEUNG-JUN: The previous government…wanted to hide as much as possible…As soon as the previous president was impeached, the ship was brought up immediately. That means that technically there was no problem to retrieve the [vessel].
KAM: If you look at the location, within one mile from the sinking spot there was an island. So if everybody had jumped out in their life vests they just could have floated and got to the island. And on that island for three years the victims’ families took turns and they watched the [site of the sinking]. They didn’t trust the government at the time. They thought the government might try to destroy the evidence while nobody’s watching…The family members set up a watch tower and they watched for three years.
DEADLINE: The Oscar nominations for your film and for Parasite are the first ever for South Korean films.
KAM: Yes, after 101 years of Korean film history.
DEADLINE: Have you given thought to making a feature-length version of the film?
KAM: Yes, we are considering the possibility. At this moment we’re not sure, but there are so many directions we can approach. At this moment we just wish this short film can be a good start…That’s why this nomination means a lot.