In the Absence [short] [subtitled]

In the Absence

In the Absence is a 28 minute documentary exposé of the tragic 2014 sinking of a South Korean passenger ferry that killed 304 people, including about 250 high school students.

The story is told through the actual messages and phone calls exchanged at the time, as well as what video footage exists of the incident.

There are plenty of quite striking sequences.

Very few passengers managed to get off the boat and survive, in large part because repeated announcements were made to remain where they were so as not to increase the likelihood of the ship sinking (i.e., if hundreds of people rush in the direction they think of as safety, that’s a sudden shift of several tons of weight, which could make the ferry unstable). This rule, it turns out, didn’t apply to the captain and crew, however. There’s even video of the captain being one of the first to abandon the ferry. So much for going down with the ship.

Officials, from the South Korean President down to the emergency services operators, responded to what was happening with such complete incompetence, delay, and “let’s just make it up as we go along” spirit as to be comical if it weren’t so tragic. At one point, juxtaposed we see the ship completely flipped over in the water Poseidon Adventure style with only a little corner of its bottom still sticking out above the surface, while we hear the conversation between someone on the scene and the clueless government or Coast Guard official still urging patience and talking about how they soon will arrange for helicopters to land on the deck to rescue people.

When one of the officials finally is made to understand that the ship has already sank, his first response is not to lament all the casualties, but to lament the missed opportunity to get video footage of people being rescued. He talks about how good that would have made them look on the nightly news.

I honestly don’t understand what was so complicated about the logistics of rescue. The ferry was going to a tourist island—Jeju—that looks from the map to be about 50-60 miles from the mainland. That’s not exactly down the block, but it’s also not in the middle of nowhere. It took about two and a half hours for the ferry to fully sink. Surely there was enough time to get most or all of those people off the boat.

The incident was such a big scandal—deservedly so, judging from this film—that the President was forced to resign, and the owner of the ferry went into hiding to elude the police and later was found dead (suicide?).

In the Absence is skillfully done, and the story is terrible, but in the end I’m not sure what I’m to do with it. I kind of file it away with the massive evidence I already had that people—including if not especially people in positions of responsibility and power—can be incredibly stupid and corrupt. I understand that there is value in exposing such misdeeds to the light of day, to ensuring that massive fuck ups like this not remain hidden, but the effect on me was mostly just to bring me down.

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