Screaming in a Void – In The Absence

Yi Seung-jun’s documentary inspired great anger in Adi Iskandar.

I had thought that ‘In The Absence’, the documentary looking at the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014, would have employed the same approach utilised by Asif Kapadia for ‘Senna’. In that film, what we see on screen is composed entirely of library footage, overlaid by a collection of audio interviews with people from Ayrton Senna’s life. It was a unique attempt effective at providing hindsight even as the past is painted in glorious Technicolour.

I say this, because this Yi Seung-jun-directed film starts with drone shots, flying over empty tracts of sea. At the same time, we hear the audio of a distress call sent out by the ship’s captain. Additionally, it also utilises footage both from outside the boat (via rescue vessels circling it) and inside it; the latter, made up of footage from inside the cabins themselves, possibly from the phones of survivors and victims, as well as dashboard cameras from the vehicles on board, are a little eerier than expected.

The breadth and depth of these elements reinforces the filmmakers’ close collaboration with the 416 Media Association and 416 Document Group. Named after the date of the disaster, this relationship allowed for the use of archive footage carefully collected in the aftermath of the disaster. This highlights the strength of these civil groups, whose efforts far outshine those from above. The documentary certainly takes aim at the authorities of the day, powers that be proving to be little more than nothing.

Unfortunately, the sinking ferry is a metaphor for this; rather than immediately capsizing, it took a while, veering sideways slowly before falling on its side. Even then, it took a while before it completely sank into the darkness below, taking with it the faith people had in their government, the only movement in a fog of infuriating stasis. The accumulation of rescue personnel and boats gathering around the ailing ferry is little more than a build-up of inutile and disgraceful behaviour from the authorities, some of whom preferred to wait in order to prepare helicopters, so people can rappel from above, making for good television.

This peels back the global South Korean glitter, a veneer aided and abetted by the strength of its cultural industries. ‘In the Absence’ uncovers the failures of a strict hierarchy, in which fear of reprisals from above rule the roost. This, of course, is not unique to South Korea alone (the ‘mystery’ of MH370’s disappearance would have been solved a lot sooner had government officials been more diligent), but more so than most, the film showcases the fallacy of a nation so keen on the surface appearances they forgot the reality behind such superficial optics.

Thankfully, the film’s talking heads provide its beating heart. Moving from the archival objective, Seung-jun allows us to feel the pain of parents whose kids went down with the ferry. It includes the trauma of those who tried to save them; local divers and fishermen actually tried to do something to save the children, even as official announcements barred them from doing so. The cost? A mental anguish that haunts them even to this day; the film noted one particular diver, Kim Gwan-hong, who subsequently took his own life.

Then there are the survivors, forever condemned to live a life of duality. On one side, the gladness with which they are able to once again taste life. On the other, the inescapable notion that perhaps, just maybe, they could have done more to help the others. A second here, an assist there… could there have been something more they could have done? Such survivor’s guilt can be debilitating, and once again, Seung-jun has managed to capture than conflict within well.

All are united in their anger at the government. There is rage here, white fury at the sheer ineptitude stemming right from the very head of the snake. I am talking about Park Geun-hye, whose gross misconduct in the entire affair was absolutely scandalous; the simple text on screen painted a bleak picture of a nincompoop who apparently spent the entire morning of the incident in her bedroom: “She appeared to have a limited understanding of the desperate situation.”

Subsequent scenes show her trying to take charge, as she visited the site of the disaster. Unbelievably, this made the situation worse. The rescue authorities, in trying to impress the president of their efforts, sank the ferry quicker through their pretense of actually doing something. Again, it’s a metaphor for her political career; Park herself would eventually be removed and jailed for corruption, a result of massive protests fueled in part by the people’s despair about the Sewol ferry disaster.

This, however, is of little consequence for those directly affected by this. Those who live are forever scarred, while those who did not remain present through their absence, the grief in their loved ones ubiquitous to this day. One text message from a student then inside one of the cabins, mentioned how much they missed their parents. Key here is the term used; what defines longing can also be literally translated as wanting to see someone or something in front of them.

Thus, it is not just that they miss their parents, it is that they want to see them again, to be held by them in their warm embrace. In that, there is nothing a child wouldn’t do to take back all that is bad. Equally, no parent would leave stones unturned to fight for their children’s safety, to bring them back to the comfort of home and family. Yet those most driven by rage are also the ninety-nine percent who, in the heat of the moment, are unable to do little more than pray for the best.

Their hopes hinge on those above, in whom faith is imbued that they will do the best, even with the least that they can do. ‘In the Absence’ demonstrates the difference between being in power and being empowered. Directly and indirectly, Seung-jun touches on social structures, political hierarchy and power (im)balances, not just in for the Sewol ferry disaster, but also for Korean society as whole, a ruse which succeeds in trapping the truth from those who need it the most.

Featured image credit: Writers Cafe

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