Documentary about Sewol ferry sinking roils South Korea film festival

A relative weeps at an area where family members of victims of the South Korean ferry Sewol are gathered, at Jindo harbor on April 21, 2014.
(Nicolas Asfouri / AFP / Getty Images)

With South Korea still healing from the aftermath of the Sewol ferry sinking, one of its worst maritime disasters, a documentary that makes damning allegations about the government response to the crisis is taking the spotlight at the country’s biggest film event, the Busan International Film Festival.

“The Truth Shall Not Sink With the Sewol” (original title “Diving Bell”) alleges that the South Korean government mishandled the response to the sinking in April and that the country’s mainstream media uncritically relayed the government’s claims to have done everything in its power to rescue passengers. “Truth” made its world premiere on Monday amid tight security and controversy after the Busan mayor tried to keep it out of the festival.

The 77-minute documentary, directed by Lee Sang-ho and Ahn Hae-ryong, is anchored by the story of Lee Jong-in, head of a private diving company who offered to use his “diving bell” to assist the rescue. A diving bell is equipment that can provide divers a space underwater to breathe, eat and rest, allowing them to work for much longer. It can also bring divers down through moving water and place them at a designated search location.


At the time of the Sewol sinking, the government repeatedly attributed its diving operation’s lack of results to strong currents and poor visibility. Lee Jong-in showed up offering to help overcome those two obstacles. He was stonewalled at every turn, the movie says, with the government refusing his company permission to attach its barge to the coast guard’s barge and eventually kicking the company out of the rescue area without explanation. He received little sympathy in the media and to this day is depicted by many Korean news outlets as a fraud who was getting in the way of the government’s rescue efforts.

Co-director Lee Sang-ho, an independent television journalist, is also one the film’s main subjects, spending much of “Truth” on camera, often in conversation with Lee Jong-in, with whom he obviously sympathizes.

In a post-screening question-and-answer session on Monday, Lee Sang-ho said his intention with the film was to “mentally and emotionally go back to the time immediately after the incident and pursue the truth.”

“The question still is, why did these children die? Why did the state fail to protect them?” Lee added.

The Sewol was carrying 476 people, only 172 of whom were rescued, many by private vessels who came to the scene to help out. Ten bodies have not been recovered.

The film draws most of its material from months that the two Lees (no relation) spent together. It intersperses footage at sea with voice-overs from South Korea’s mainstream broadcast media, which narrated the daily figures of casualties and the details of the rescue operation as dictated by the government. The film’s strongest visuals show Lee Jong-in at his elaborate desk on a barge, with the night sky illuminated by emergency flares that stream overhead.


The film conveys some of the emotional weight of the tragedy and the grief of family members who felt helpless to rescue their loved ones. “Truth” features judicious use of scenes of teary bereaved relatives in heated exchanges with government officials they accused of not doing enough to save the Sewol’s passengers, most of whom were high school students on a field trip. One distraught mother asks a government official, “Are you going to be responsible if my child ends up as food for fish?”

As a result of this loaded subject matter, “Truth” was a source of controversy in Busan even before it was screened. The mayor of Busan, who also is also chairman of the film festival, reportedly attempted to have it removed from the docket, arguing that a political film did not belong at the event, which is partly funded with taxpayer money.

Monday’s screening went ahead with no mishaps, albeit in a tense atmosphere, as organizers expressed concern that conservative civic groups might attempt to cause a disruption.

In the months since the sinking, the Sewol issue has bitterly divided South Korean society along political lines. Calls for an investigation into the government response have become associated with the political left, leading to a backlash from right-wing groups.

Lee said the touchy topic will make it difficult for “Truth” to find wide distribution in South Korea, but he plans screenings in a limited number of theaters later this month.

Borowiec is a special correspondent.