The Filmmakers Behind In the Absence on What It Can Teach Americans

The Oscar-nominated documentary already made history for South Korea. Its makers hope others learn from it too.

A ship flipped over on its side.
The MV Sewol ferry, pictured while sinking on April 16, 2014. Myranda Dapolito (CMPR)

The “absence” in the title of In the Absence, the Oscar-nominated documentary short from director Yi Seung-jun, refers to the absence of the government. The film is about the sinking of a South Korean passenger ferry in 2014, an incident that claimed more than 300 lives, most of them high school students on a field trip. The disaster is now widely blamed on government negligence and helped lead to the impeachment of South Korea’s president.

But a different kind of absence is also the source of the documentary’s strength, as Yi approaches the tragic subject matter with a considered restraint. The effect is a documentary that does not engage with the speed and amnesia of a rapidly moving news cycle but rather encourages a more muted, persistent form of remembrance. As Yi put it to me, the film “starts from the pain and suffering of the families of the deceased students and the civilian divers who helped with the rescue or salvaging and then works its way back to the source of this suffering.” (The film is also available to watch in full on YouTube, below.)

Following the film’s history-making nomination—it and Parasite are the first South Korean films to ever receive recognition from the Academy Awards—I spoke to Yi and producer Gary Byung-seok Kam. In our conversation, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, we discussed the context and resonances of the Sewol sinking, the short’s strategic omissions, and the unique challenge of balancing respect for the subjects of the film with respect for the film as a work of cinematic journalism.

Slate: What compelled you to make this documentary—about a 2014 incident—at this particular point in time?

Gary Byeong-seok Kam: There were several documentaries about the Sewol ferry immediately following the incident. Most of them were closer to investigative reportage, concerned with uncovering truths, identifying causes, and assigning blame. While we believe that these documentaries were also important, we wondered whether there was another story to tell. That’s where our questions began. For three years, we’d observed the news cycle churn out various Sewol-related images for consumption, but we wondered how it all fit together during that day. Director Yi in particular was concerned with exploring the suffering of the family members and the rescue divers, the silent suffering of an ordinary citizen faced with the reality of a broken system. We wanted to explore the sense of betrayal that comes with realizing that a government we expected would protect us is not, in fact, functioning properly.

As documentary filmmakers, how were you able to approach the subject differently from the way it was covered—as you say, extensively—in the news?

Kam: You’ve seen the news and its images: of the children, especially their last moments, of the sinking ferry, and of the hovering rescue helicopters. You saw these images and understood that there was some rescue attempt, and that there were people in danger. But these simplistic characterizations of the situation—that there was an accident and that the rescue mission was a failure—were not enough. The important thing was that such a tragedy would never happen again. We started this film about three years after the incident, just as people were starting to say that enough was enough. People wondered why we needed to keep talking about it. But had we allowed the issue to fade away, without any conclusions about the origins or causes of the incident, we would most definitely have been setting ourselves up for a repeat of this issue in the future.

Director Yi hoped that by piecing together the source material in such a way, the film would convey just how egregiously inadequate the system was, and how much suffering was directly due to this inadequacy. It’s not easy to watch this suffering on screen, but I believe it’s necessary to sit with this pain, as well as the pain we feel when we empathize. Only then can we ask the right questions. This was why Director Yi put so much emphasis on the effect of pain. It was an emotionally taxing project, especially for the director. We saw things we should not have seen, although we could not bring ourselves to include them in the film.

Yet the documentary doesn’t feel gratuitous with regard to pain. How did you decide what to include?

Yi Seung-jun: I made a point of consulting the families of the victims during production. Our principle was this: We prioritized the position of the victims’ families. The characters in a documentary are real people, and so documentary filmmaking demands a particular ethical sensibility. I felt this all the more strongly because I was ultimately making a disaster documentary. There were some clips that we personally felt that we should not include, and others that we solicited the opinions of the families on. Everything in the film was included with support from the victims’ families.

We also communicated a lot with our partners at Field of Vision, especially during the editing process. For example, it enabled us to recognize that we had quite different ways of expressing ourselves and responded differently to certain expressions of emotion on screen. You see a lot of unreserved sobbing among Koreans—for example, at funerals. But what we heard was that it could come across as strange among audiences here, so we made slight adjustments to accommodate for these differences in expressions of sadness.

Ultimately, I didn’t want the documentary to be merely heart-rending, or to appeal to that kind of sentiment. Rather, I was interested in provoking a broader and deeper response, one that would linger. I thought this could be best accomplished not through depictions of weeping, or graphic imagery, but rather through a considered interior portrait of the divers and the families. You can see for yourself in the interviews with the survivors or the families, but there are quite a few moments when they are silent. I included these pauses in the film—to me they felt significant.

What were some examples of footage you decided not to include?

Yi: There were many pictures from inside the boat, pictures sent from children via mobile phone. Pictures of their faces. As a director, I included them because I recognized that they were powerful images. Later I changed my mind. It was too much.

Kam: There’s a scene where the students are talking among themselves, wondering what the captain is doing. At the time, of course, none of them had any sense of the danger, because they had faith in the system and they thought they would be fine. But there are videos from a bit after that, where the students are addressing their mothers, telling them: “Mom, I don’t want to die. I really don’t want to die.” We knew this had happened, and we knew that these clips would elicit a certain kind of reaction from the audience. But we were also ambivalent about how far we should go in our portrayal of others’ pain. We ultimately opted to leave this part out and instead included the shot of the shoes, submerged. We trusted the audience to understand without our pushing them to witness this, or that. The net effect was that the film became, perhaps, a bit drier and more aloof. But we believed that this was important ethically, and important in that it allowed the audience to approach the film on their own terms.

Sifting through the source material must have been difficult.

Yi: I’ve been making documentaries for more than 20 years. It’s a profession that requires you to be dispassionate. And in fact, once you’ve worked in documentary film, you do become more dispassionate, in a sense because you have no other choice. You have to maintain some sense of distance from your subject. So it wasn’t so difficult when I was actually shooting or editing footage. It was actually much harder during my breaks, when these images would float into my mind, unbidden. I have a daughter who is a sophomore in high school, so I almost can’t help myself.

The documentary is not really about the candlelight protests, but the candlelight protests are part of the subtext. Can you say a little more about the larger significance of Sewol in this regard?

Yi: The parents of the victims, and the civilian divers, had raised questions about government culpability at the outset. A few months after the sinking on April 16, 2014, they discovered inconsistencies and unexplained circumstances, and they demanded an explanation. The administration initially tried to discourage this line of questioning, and at this stage there were many people who were also doubtful.

But then the full story began to emerge. We found out about the existence of the infamous government blacklist, containing the names of thousands of artists and culture industry figures who had criticized the government for its response to Sewol. It became increasingly likely that the government had made a concerted effort to silence any sort of investigation into the Sewol sinking. None of this, of course, was directly the cause of the impeachment, but Sewol did become a cause in another sense, one that represented some of the growing mistrust in the government. The sadness, frustration, and trauma of the Sewol accidents crystallized into an anger against the government at the candlelight protests, and fueled the fire. In that sense, the Sewol ferry incident was very much a part of the story of the protests.

What is the legacy of the incident today?

Kam: They’re still investigating exactly what happened and identifying responsible parties. But as you know, there’s a statute of limitations. This means that there’s a likelihood that those who should be held responsible will be let off the hook. At the same time, our primary aim isn’t retaliation but to prevent such a thing from happening again.

As the parents of the victims have always told us, they did not become activists for their own children—nothing will bring their children back. Rather, they’re doing it because they believe that people have a right to demand a certain guarantee of safety from their country. That a parent who sees a child off with a “see you later” should be able to welcome the child back with an “I’m back.” But it’s not just South Korea where these basic guarantees of safety are threatened, where children might leave on a field trip and end up drowning. Children are shot to death in the U.S. They might die in a fire in the U.K., like in the Grenfell Tower fire. So we hope to expand the scope of the discussion to encompass not just questions about South Korean society, but about what a country fundamentally owes its people.