Everyday Activist - In the Absence (Oscars 2020)

Posted on Friday, December 20, 2019 at 10:00 PM

In the Absence (Oscars 2020)

Movie Review by Everyday Activist X CalgaryMovies.com

Most of the Oscars 2020 shortlisted short documentaries were available on Netflix or online. Out of the films I’ve seen, In the Absence is my favorite to win, though the critic pick is Fire in Paradise. Both films dealt with disasters, but In the Absence suspends the audience in complete disbelief at the levels of corruption within the South Korean government. Private citizens helped the evacuees more than the Coast Guard, who managed to save the captain, while hundreds of children were still on board the sinking ferry, Sewol.

The magic of a film is in its editing. Director, Seung-jun Yi, weaves together images from his own featuring the survivors and families, student cellphones, ferry dashcams and media footage of the disaster. Splicing them together, he creates a tapestry of the event from multiple perspectives. To ensure the audience has a visceral reaction to the level of incompetence, he invokes cognitive dissonance by synchronizing audio from the government departments with the footage of Sewol sinking using time stamps. Audiences witness the completely submerged ship as the government officials give the go ahead to start the rescue several hours after the first call was made.

Civilian divers retrieved the bodies and belongings, because the government divers didn’t have the correct diving training. At 40 m, divers often experience nitrogen narcosis, because the nitrogen rich gas compresses to enter the bloodstream. Symptoms can include slower mental functioning, depression and hallucinations, especially after repeated dives as the body doesn’t have time to recover. This information gives context as to why the divers had mental health problems on top of the trauma of recovering bodies that could have been saved.Three years later in 2017, the coast guard finally raised the ship. Hundreds of cellphones and other belongings were retrieved, but not immediately returned to the grieving families.

Yi uses the students’ text messages in the film to narrate the sinking ferry from their point of view. One of the mobile phone cameras captured a student accurately commenting on the announcement to stay put, as those who gave the order ran for their lives. She talks about a subway disaster, where the people who stayed died, and those who disobeyed the instructions lived. Because no one ordered the ship to be evacuated, 304 people drowned, many of them students on a field trip. The parents of the deceased took action to demand the removal of the President and Prime Minister. While they were successful, the corruption had bled into the judicial system. Few people were punished despite the number of lives lost.

I included an Al Jazeera article link, because it contains more information about the film from the filmmaker. He reminds us to not let history repeat itself in another time or place. Much like the National Geographic film, The Nightcrawlers, also on the Oscars 2020 shortlist, we all have a responsibility to hold our government systems accountable. Otherwise, corruption will lead to broken homes and broken hearts rippling with grief for those left behind.  

Calgary Showtimes: In the Absence >


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