At 9.47am on 16th April, 2014, Yoo An-Sil received a call from her daughter, Yu Mi-Ji. Travelling from Incheon Port, South Korea to Jeju Island as part of a school trip, the passenger ferry that she was on, the M.V. Sewol, had started to list.
Yoo An-Sil told Yu Mi-Ji to follow her teacher’s instructions - a decision that was to become the biggest regret of her life. At the very moment that she was speaking to her daughter, for what would be the last time, the captain of the M.V. Sewol abandoned his sinking ship.
476 passengers were on board the Sewol that morning - including Yu Mi-Ji and 324 other students. 304 people would lose their lives, having been told to stay put as the ferry slowly sank into the water.
The tragedy of the M.V. Sewol is told in Yi Seung-Jun’s powerful documentary short, In The Absence. The film features devastating footage and includes utterly heartbreaking stories from survivors, civilian rescue divers and grieving parents.
The documentary’s title, In The Absence, refers both to the absence of an effective rescue effort for those on board the ferry and also the absence of care shown by those in authority towards those they were supposed to protect.
Audio recordings from the coast guard to the then president Park Geun-hye’s office are juxtaposed with video footage of the disaster - revealing a government catastrophically (and at times wilfully) out of touch with events.
As a result, this shocking documentary is both deeply upsetting to watch and also incredibly enraging. How could this have happened?
Unfortunately, years later, the survivors of the M.V. Sewol and those grieving the people who died would still be fighting for answers.
In The Absence makes use of a variety of audio recordings and video footage of the events that unfolded that terrible day. We see dash cam recordings from vehicles aboard the ferry. We see mobile phone footage of students discussing their situation. We hear the response from the emergency services. We read distressing text messages sent from worried children to their parents.
It is hard not to question what you would do if you had been on the ferry or if you had been in Yoo An-Sil’s position. As a result, this is a film that lingers long after its 29 minute running time has concluded.
However, In The Absence is not just concerned with the ferry sinking itself. The film tells a wider story - exploring the horrendous task of recovering the dead (undertaken by civilian divers because the government did not have divers with the necessary skills) and the lack of transparency about the tragedy in the years that followed.
In The Absence follows the fight for justice. From October 2016 to March 2017, there were a series of candle protests in South Korea, calling answers and for the resignation of President Park Geun-hye. Millions of people took part in these protests - Yi Seung-Jun was among them.
As a result, when Field Of Vision - a visual journalism film unit co-created by Laura Poitras (Citizenfour), AJ Schnack and Charlotte Cook - asked the director to make a documentary short, he knew the story that he needed to tell.
Yi Seung-Jun made his film with the full support and cooperation of the grieving families and the survivors of the ferry disaster. Despite coming under intense pressure to stay silent and avoid voicing any criticism of how the tragedy was handled, they desperately want their story to be heard. They want to raise awareness of the need for safety regulations - of the very highest standard - everywhere in the world.
Such awareness will undoubtedly grow following In The Absence’s Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short Subject (the first-ever South Korean nominee for the category). We can only hope that this offers some small comfort and, by facing what happened that day, a similar disaster can be avoided in the future.