Staff and industry professionals attending the CineMart co-production market sent a public message of support to the beleaguered Busan International Film Festival (BIFF)
By Melanie Goodfellow
Festival director Bero Beyer, programmer Gerwin Tamsma (who oversees the selection of Korean titles) and scores of industry professionals posed on the steps of IFFR festival hub de Doelen for a group photo, holding banners proclaiming "We Support Busan". Lee Yong-Kwan has come under unrelenting pressure to step down as BIFF director from Busan City Council officials angered by his decision to screen controversial ferry-sinking documentary The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol in 2015, against their wishes. He has thus far refused to leave, but is currently gearing up to fight charges filed against him by the city, accusing him of mismanagement of festival sponsorship fees, on the basis of an audit of BIFF’s books carried out last year following the documentary dispute.
"There has been a tightening grip and manipulation of the festival which is unacceptablefor any festival that holds freedom dear to its core, and the situation seems to be escalating," commented Beyer, who earlier addressed a CineMart lunch on the matter. "There are concerted efforts to push Lee out for reasons that are clearly political and have nothing to do with culture and running a festival. We thought it was our responsibility, our duty to show our moral support to the organisation of BIFF and its dedication to free cultural expression, which is the basis for every film festival - or should be the basis for every film festival - in Europe, in Asia and all around the world."
Lee Sang-ho and Ahn Hae-ryong’s The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol was the first documentary to be released on the South Korean ferry disaster in April 2015 in which 300 passengers lost their lives, many of them children. Shot in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the documentary’s suggestion that government incompetence was partly to blame for the tragedy angered local Busan officials. Busan City Municipality demanded BIFF to pull the film from the programme after it was announced it would screen in the 2015 edition. Lee refused. Since then, he has been under constant pressure to quit as director of the festival. "First they demanded that the programmer who programmed the film be sacked, and of course Busan said no; then they demanded the film be pulled, and of course Busan said no. Then they started to cut funding and all sorts of regulations related to the festival were changed. Part of the budget was taken away. Then they sent in the accountants and the final act has been to prosecute Lee Yong-Kwan for financial irregularities," commented Tamsma "It was made clear that if Lee Yong-Kwan were to step back or not stand for another term they would drop the charges; which is clear blackmail of course. This month, the board will decide whether he will stay or not. As far as I know, they are supportive of him. In the background, it will cost Lee Yong-Kwan astronomical legal fees to defend himself because it’s a personal attack. There is a crowd-funding campaign going on in South Korea to help raise the money."
Tony Rayns' letter
Alongside IFFR’s collective message of support, East Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns – a long-time collaborator with both Rotterdam and Busan – published an open letter in support of Lee Yong-Kwan and the festival, highlighting the unjust folly of the Busan municipality’s attacks. "I don’t think it can be disputed that BIFF has been one of the main engines of the city’s growth. By basing itself in Haeundae, the festival prompted major improvements to the city’s transport infrastructure: a subway-line extension, a bridge across the bay. By attracting countless foreign visitors, the festival helped turn the city from a rather dingy and parochial port into a spectacular, cosmopolitan metropolis," he wrote.