The ferry Sewol sank in 2014 killing more than 300 people, mostly school students. To give just one snapshot of the tragedy that divers faced during salvage operations, the bodies of 48 girls, all with life vests on, were found crammed in a single room.
The official trailer for the documentary After the Sewol was released last week, and MarEx spoke to director Matt Root and producer by Neil P. George about the significance of the diving operations in the tragedy.
Why did you include the divers in the documentary?
The Sewol tragedy has affected a wide variety of people within Korea including the divers. A lot of people forget that the divers had significant physical as well as emotional trauma when undertaking the rescue and recovery operations. The sea conditions were very bad, but the families pleaded with them to try and rescue their children. It was an incredibly difficult time for everyone involved and of course it didn’t help that the government had very little idea how to deal with it in the first instance.
When we talked with the divers, they both felt very strongly about resolving this tragedy, discovering the truth and raising the ship. However, due to the governments inaction and the salvage delays it has dragged on now for three years. We believe that it will continue a lot longer, but we are sure that the divers and the families will not give up in their search for the truth about this terrible disaster. It is vital that this tragedy does not go on unresolved and the part the divers played in it is not forgotten.
Trauma is not something that can be overcome quickly, and a lack of assistance for trauma care within Korea makes it even more difficult for all the people involved. We raise this point within the film to some extent, but we will be talking about trauma in more detail within the second film, which is currently in production now.
Making sure that we cover the divers was an essential element to the film, that went onto highlight many things including trauma, insufficient assistance, and a lack of action etc. In fact, this disaster could well have been prevented if the government had learned from previous mistakes in regards to safety management.
A diver died during the operations. That is all beside the horror they faced retrieving bodies. What do you think this shows about South Korea's response and their culture?
Yes, that was a very sad moment when the diver lost his life whilst trying to rescue others. Another life was lost needlessly. Actually, another diver also took his own life not all that long ago due to the emotional trauma of the disaster.
We interviewed the two divers about one week after that incident happened, so at that time they were also feeling highly emotional. Trauma has become a very big issue surrounding the Sewol tragedy, and when talking with the family members it feels as though they haven’t really been supported well by the government to help them overcome this incredibly traumatic event.
In short, the response by the government was akin to murder. They did nothing from the evidence and interviews we have done. Some people were held accountable, but there are a lot more people out there who should be held accountable for their inaction.
Unfortunately, Korea has a bad history when it comes to safety and safety management. This has been seen historically with such disasters as the Sampoong department store collapse in 1994, and even more recently there have been several accidents involving sink holes collapsing and subway screen doors killing workers. It very much feels like Korea doesn’t treat safety as a major priority within its society, and this has been proven over and over again when we look back at the history.
Not wanting to give too much of the film away, there have actually been several ferry tragedies in Korea dating back to 1953 and even one just 24 years ago in 1993. So, it became apparent throughout the making of this film that safety is definitely not at the top of the list in Korea.
This is one of the issues that the Sewol families are trying to improve, and we feel that this sometimes gets misunderstood by the general public, and that was one of the reasons we made this film, to highlight the issue and make people more aware so they can push the government to act.
In saying this we are aware that the government are trying to rectify some safety issues now, but only time will show us if what they are doing will bring about this much-needed change.
What do you hope will be achieved?
We hope that the Sewol families can achieve what they are fighting so hard for, and quite frankly it is something that we would fight for given their circumstances, and that is the truth. We are both from the U.K., and so being around to witness the Hillsborough disaster in the late 1980’s and the aftermath of that tragic accident, we hope that the Sewol families don’t have to wait 27 years for justice. But, we have no doubt that they will continue to fight until they get what they want, and we will continue to document and film with them until that time comes, however long it takes.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.