Will Busan Film Fest win its fight against censorship?

  • Gautaman Bhaskaran, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Feb 24, 2015 18:22 IST

The world over cinema is under terrible threat. We saw that with Russia's Leviathan, a celebrated Oscar nominee that could only enjoy limited screening in the country. The version shown was also heavily scissored.

In Iran, a master director like Jafar Panahi has been banned from making movies for 20 years -- pushing him to step clandestinely behind the camera and smuggle his works into Cannes and Berlin. We have seen how cinema is treated in India -- where extra-constitutional censorship makes life really hard for helmers.

And now the Busan International Film Festival is struggling against censorship. In two decades or even less, Busan grew so big and so prominent that it put to shame much older festivals in Asia. For instance, the festivals in Tokyo and India (Goa) have been left far behind.

Last year, the Busan Festival refused the city mayor's request to withdraw a documentary showing a ferry tragedy in South Korea. The movie is titled The Truth Shall Not Sink With The Sewol. The Festival Director, Lee Yong-kwan, has since then been facing a witch hunt and is being pressured to resign.

A review in Variety had this to say about the documentary. "The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol brings impressive urgency and plenty of outrage to bear on a tragedy that will demand continued scrutiny in years to come. Emerging barely six months after the South Korean ferry disaster that claimed the lives of more than 300 passengers in April, this raw, ragged, controversy-stirring item never pretends to take a comprehensive view of its complex subject, instead using a narrow account of one man’s stonewalled rescue efforts to pry open a small, infuriating window on the staggering levels of government incompetence and media collusion at work."

But the good news is that the world community of film festivals has rallied around Lee. The General-Delegate of the Cannes Film Festival, Thierry Fremaux, in a statement expressed "stupefaction and sadness" over the events in Busan. He said Lee and Busan were highly regarded in the world of movie festivals. "Busan is a festival which resembles our own at Cannes and it is a festival with which we can work...A great festival is a festival that is independent. A great festival is a festival that has authority in its programming. And a great festival is a festival that is free."

Fremaux went on: “And of course freedom of expression and independence of programming are things that can make us sometimes suffer and sometimes think. But it is important that while an artist makes a film, a programmer can show it at a festival. It is not acceptable that authorities exterior to a festival be able to exert influence on a festival’s point of view in programming. It’s for the festival itself to decide what is good and not".

Fremaux highlighted the example of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which won the top Palm d'Or at Cannes. “It was a very political movie. It was not is if the Cannes Film Festival was political. It was Michael Moore who was political. Busan did not make a mistake in screening the documentary. The Festival had the right to show it. A Festival facilitates a free exchange of ideas in a democratic manner. Only a movie festival can make this happen".

In the context, Fremaux averred that Cannes was planning to re-screen a documentary on Charlie Hebdo caricaturists: It's Hard Being Loved By Jerks. The Festival first showed it in 2008 when these men were already on trial, so to say. "All these people are dead. They have just been assassinated. And the Festival is going to screen this film again. Because it is important, because it contributes to democracy, because it contributes to our métiers that pose the question, more than ever today on this planet, of how we all live together.”

Thierry ended with categorical support: “Sometimes artists and cineastes make difficult movies, movies that can be painful, but nonetheless, we must show them and accept them because this is how we go further. The Cannes Film Festival supports, totally and with all its prestige, the Busan Film Festival and Mr. Lee.”

The Director of the Venice Film Festival, Alberto Barbera, was also strong in his support for Lee. He said: “Within the very wide geography of international movie festivals, Busan has managed to achieve an admirable position. The most important film festivals in the world are not more than five or six: three are located in Europe -- Cannes, Venice and Berlin -- and one in Toronto. Then, for the whole Asian territory, there is Busan, which over the years has become a key point of reference...The Festival has not only managed to promote Korean cinema and to shine a light on Asia’s most important auteurs, young moviemakers, and most talented directors, but also build a bridge between Asia and the West..."

Barbera added that Venice had more than once in the past presented movies that were critical of the Government. "Last year, we presented a film -- Sabina Guzzanti’s The State-Mafia Pact -- which attacked the Italian Government for accepting to negotiate secretly and illegally with the Sicilian Mafia. There is a trial now on, and the movie obviously did not go well with the politicians now being tried".

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