The AFI DOCS Interview: IN THE ABSENCE With Director Yi Seung-Jun
When the passenger ferry MV Sewol sank off the coast of South Korea in 2014, more than 300 people lost their lives, most of them schoolchildren. Years later, the victims’ families and survivors are still demanding justice from national authorities.
Yi Seung-Jun’s work focuses on the life of unseen minorities, which has informed his signature style of filmmaking. He has directed several feature-length documentary films, including the award-winning PLANET OF SNAIL (2011).
AFI spoke with him about the documentary, which screens at AFI DOCS as part of Shorts Program 2 at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, MD on Thursday, June 20 and at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington DC on Friday, June 21. Buy tickets here.
AFI: What led you to pursue documentary filmmaking?
From childhood, I’ve always wished this world to be better. There are different art forms dealing with the real world. Documentary deals with reality, facts being its primary material. When you see someone in tears in a documentary film, you see the real tears, engaging in the real emotion of the person. With this thought, I’ve wanted to share the stories of people in this world with real feelings and essential questions that I believe we should remember or share with others for a better world. Documentary, to me, is one of the most efficient ways to communicate with people.
AFI: How did you become interested in this story? What inspired you to tell it?
It was three years after the disaster when I started this project. However, I could see pains were still there, and it never seemed to end. Some people said “It’s been three years. Let’s stop talking about the disaster and move on.” However, if we move on even though there still are people suffering from the pain, it needs to be shared. If we get used to forgetting the pain, this kind of disaster could happen again, I believe. Also, I wanted to reveal the origin of the pains, hoping people don’t forget the tragedy.
AFI: How did you find and connect with the subjects in your film?
Rather than focusing on the story structure of the film, I tried hard to reconstruct what was going on during the sinking, with most of the passengers trapped in the ferry. I collected all the materials — video footage shot by the coast guards, recorded calls among governmental agencies, including the presidential office, coast guards, phone clips of the passengers, text messages, dash-cam footages.
With those materials, I could build up the moment of tragedy that revealed the fact that it was not an accident but an incident that was caused by the systemic human frailty, corruption and the incompetence of the government. The government failed to rescue the passengers, and the government the ordinary citizens trusted was absent. Also, that absence caused the unbearable, deeply rooted pain that was delivered in the interviews of the victims’ families, the civilian divers and the survivors.
AFI: What do you want audiences to walk away with after screening your film?
History teaches us that if we easily forget the tragedy, it repeats. The victims’ families say, “Remember 16 April.” We human beings are vulnerable to time. As time goes on, we forget many things. Time makes us dull. It’s like a black hole absorbing our thinking and feeling. Isn’t it scary to become dull? We need to keep our eyes wide open to this world, to the system and order which are controlling this world. I want people to remember the day, and what the tragedy is telling us. Also, I hope people do not forget that if some system fails to operate correctly, it results in terrible pain in the end. Which might not be curable.
AFI: Why are documentary films important today?
Documentary allows you to see, read and feel this world properly. This current world is full of media dealing with the current issues. However, there are many fake materials, and some are just for fun, and some just rubbish. When we make a documentary film, we search for truths, not for amusement. You have to have proper eyes and ears toward this world, especially in this media-dominated world. Without the right perspective, you’ll fail to see, read and feel this world in the right way. You can have proper eyes and years by watching and sharing documentary films.