Asia's top film festival in crisis

By Jung Ha-Won   March 31, 2016 | 07:28 pm PT
Seoul, South Korea - The future of Asia’s top film festival is being threatened by a bitter dispute over what organisers are calling an unacceptable political challenge to their artistic independence, with moviemakers pushing an "empty red carpet" boycott of this year’s event.

The Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), held every October in the South Korean port of Busan, marked its 20 anniversary last year (AFP Photo/Ted Aljibe)

The Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) -- held every October in the South Korean port of Busan -- marked its 20 anniversary last year, but celebrations were soured by a lingering row that has since snowballed into a full-blown crisis.

A flurry of official probes targeting its organisers and an unprecedented cut in state funding have raised serious doubts over the event's artistic and financial viability.

Artistic director Lee Yong-Kwan was forced to step down in February, even as his counterparts from other top international film festivals like Cannes and Berlin wrote an open letter warning that political pressure was threatening BIFF's future.

Organisers say they have become targets of political retaliation for screening a film in 2014 -- in defiance of state opposition -- about the government's handling of the Sewol ferry disaster.

The scathing, highly emotive documentary slammed Seoul's botched rescue efforts in the immediate aftermath of the ferry sinking in April 2014 that claimed more than 300 lives, most of them school children.

- 'Hefty price' -

"We are paying a hefty price for screening the movie that the government disliked," a BIFF spokeswoman, Kim Jung-Yun, told AFP.

"Everyone is concerned about artistic and political independence of the BIFF... this is the biggest crisis we have ever faced," Kim said.

"Diving Bell" (or "The Truth Will Not Sink With Sewol") had its world premiere at the 2014 BIFF, against the wishes of the Busan city mayor, Suh Byung-Hoo, who serves as festival chairman and who deemed the movie "too political".

The premiere went ahead after a barrage of protest from filmmakers who accused Suh of compromising the festival's independence.

But state funding was nearly halved to 800 million won ($700,000) for the 2015 event, while BIFF director Lee became the target of a series of probes by state auditors and prosecutors over the festival's financial dealings.

Lee was eventually compelled to leave in February after Suh refused to renew his contract.

- Global industry support -

The same month saw the publication of an open letter of protest to the mayor, signed by more than 100 prominent overseas cineastes including the directors of the Cannes, Berlin and Venice film festivals.

"Our concern leads us to call on you... not to damage the festival or its independence, and to stop applying political pressure to the festival’s leaders and programmers," the letter said.

"The events of the past year not only threaten that independence but also put the entire future of BIFF at risk," it added.

Hundreds of South Korean actors, directors and producers have staged street rallies for months urging the authorities to back off.

"This festival is not a personal possession of state officials, but a valued cultural heritage nurtured and enjoyed by movie fans," an amalgam of Korean filmmakers' associations said in a joint statement released in March.

The group vowed to boycott the 2016 event unless the Busan city council -- a major BIFF sponsor and stakeholder -- accepts changes to the festival rules that they say would ensure its artistic independence.

- 'Empty red carpet' -

"The world will witness the empty red carpet for the first time in 20 years of BIFF's history and the audience from all over the world will stop coming to Busan for the festival anymore," the statement said.

The council rejected the ultimatum, insisting the government probes and Lee's departure had nothing to do with the controversial documentary.

"I was simply trying to overhaul the unreasonable operations of the festival that have been dominated by a few," Suh told a press conference.

"These people are trying to frame my efforts as political oppression and deceive many citizens," he said.

With the dispute showing no signs of abating, the festival organisers fear its integrity is in peril.

"For now we are trying our best to prepare for this year's event but we are afraid the crisis is greatly hurting our reputation," said spokeswoman Kim.

"Who would want to come to see a film festival with no freedom of expression?"

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