Korean film student group confident petition will help rehabilitate BIFF


A loosely organized film student group from several Korean universities has said they are confident their passionate protest and signature-collecting campaign at this year’s Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) has not only highlighted the political controversy that has marred the festival since 2014 but will eventually also lead to its rehabilitation.

The group gathered persistently in front of the festival’s main venue since opening day on October 12, inviting passersby to sign a petition to demand assurances from Busan’s city government to forthwith refrain from interfering in the festival’s workings and apologize for what they say has undermined the festival’s credibility as an independent showcase for Korean cinema in particular.

In 2014, the city government under mayor Seo Pyung-soo had ordered BIFF to withdraw The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol (a.k.a. Diving Bell) from its programming, a documentary on one of the worst maritime disasters in modern Korean history.

More than 300 people had perished when a ferry taking vacationers to a popular holiday island sank, a large proportion among them being schoolchildren who drowned after they were ordered to stay under deck while the captain and crew abandoned the foundering vessel.

The film also heavily criticized the national government of then-president Park Keun-hye for hampering a transparent investigation into the disaster and brick-walling against bringing the true circumstances leading to the tragedy to light. City mayor Seo was a close ally of Park.

BIFF’s management initially defied Seo’s order and screened the film anyway. Upping his pressure, he subsequently fired Lee Young-gwan, the festival’s executive director. In the following year, the city government slashed BIFF’s budget by 50 percent, plunging BIFF into a severe financial crisis.

Even worse, the development caused the festival’s credibility to erode among Korean film circles, with several local film industry guilds having boycotted it ever since.

“We have embarked on our campaign, because the Busan city government has politicized the festival, causing it great harm. Our aim is to restore BIFF’s independence and we not only demand an apology from mayor Seo but also that the budget be restored and that no further political interference will occur,” Jo Soo-hwi, a first-year film student at Busan’s Dongseo University and member of the student group, told FJI.

Jo, who insisted that her group’s campaign was in no way organized or supported by BIFF but that they acted solely on their own resolve, said that by closing day (October 20) more than 2,000 signatures had been collected for the petition.

“This shows that many people agree that art, including film, should be free of political suppression of any kind,” she said. Asked whether she saw any chance that her petition would lead to the hoped-for outcome, she added: “I am 100 percent sure it will.”

The group’s cards seem not too bad after Korea’s recently elected new president Moon Jae-in vowed to ensure full independence for BIFF during his visit to the festival on October 15.

During his speech, the first one ever given by a Korean president in the festival’s 22-year history, Moon said, “The city or the central government must ensure to protect the festival’s independence and autonomy by supporting it without interfering. I promise that there will be support, but no interference.”

If city mayor Seo heeds Moon’s call, there are indeed hopes that BIFF will return to normal and also regain its reputation with the local film industry guilds that keep shunning it so far.