Directors of award-winning films including Uncle Boonmee… and Kandahar also back freedom of expression fight.

Cannes Film Festival chief Thierry Fremaux, Venice’s Alberto Barbera and renowned filmmakers including Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming Liang and the Makhmalbaf family have sent strongly-worded statements of support to the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), currently embroiled in a censorship struggle.

The Busan fest last year refused mayor Seo Byeong-soo’s request to withdraw the ferry disaster documentary The Truth Shall Not Sink With The Sewol and has since been through what pundits have called a “vindictive audit”, and has seen the mayor this year request festival director Lee Yong-kwan step down.

Fremaux in a video expressed “stupefaction and sadness” over the events at Busan and the demand that Lee Yong-kwan resign.

Fremaux describes Lee and the Busan fest as “very respected in the world of film festivals” for reasons that include, for instance, for the French and the organizers of Cannes, “that it is a festival that resembles us and it is a festival with which we can work.

“A great festival is a festival that is independent. A great festival is a festival that has authority in its programming. And a great festival is a festival that is free.

“And of course freedom of expression and independence of programming are things that can make us sometimes suffer and sometimes think. But it’s important that while an artist makes a film, a programmer can show it at a festival. It is not acceptable that authorities exterior to a festival be able to put influence on a festival’s point of view in programming. It’s for the festival itself to decide what is good and not,” he said.

Fremaux brought up the example of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911, which won the Palme d’or: “It was a very political film. It wasn’t the Cannes Film Festival that was political. It was Michael Moore that was political. It’s not the Busan film festival that made a mistake in showing a film like that one [The Truth Shall Not Sink With The Sewol]. It’s the Busan film festival that was right to show that this film exists. And after that, democracy and exchanges of ideas could take place. And it’s a film festival that can make this possible.”

With this purpose he remarked he is planning to re-screen a controversial documentary of Cannes’ own:

“At the Cannes Film Festival, we showed a documentary on the caricaturists of Charlie Hebdo [It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks in 2008], at a time when they were already on trial. All these people are dead. They have just been assassinated. And the festival is going to screen this film again. Because it is important, because it contributes to democracy, because it contributes to our métiers that pose the question, more than ever today on this planet, of how we all live together.”

He ended with categorical support: “Sometimes artists and cineastes make difficult films, films that can be painful, but nonetheless we must show them and accept them because this is how we go further. The Cannes Film Festival supports, totally and with all its prestige, the Busan film festival and Mr. Lee.”

Message from Venice

Alberto Barbera, director of the Venice Film Festival said, “Within the very wide geography of international film festivals, BIFF managed to achieve an admirable position. The most important film festivals in the world are no more than five or six: three are located in Europe – namely, Cannes, Venice and Berlin, the oldest and most prestigious festivals; one is located in the American continent – namely the Toronto film festival; then, for the whole Asian territory, there is BIFF, which over the years has become a key point of reference.

“This has happened thanks to the skills of BIFF’s programmers, director, as well as of BIFF’s founders. BIFF has not only managed to promote Korean cinema and to shine a light on Asia’s most important auteurs, young filmmakers, and most talented directors, but also built a bridge between Asia and the West, that is, it presented in Asia – and in Korea in particular – the most important films produced in the United States, in South America, in Europe, and in the Western world,” he said.

Barbera also emphasized the importance of freedom of expression as “one of the fundamental values of every democratic society” upon which “the reputation and credibility of a festival” also rests, commending BIFF on always having done “an extraordinary job” in this respect.

“Also at the Venice Film Festival, more than once in the past, we presented films that were critical of the government and of the authorities in general. For instance, last year we presented a film [Sabina Guzzanti’s The State-Mafia Pact] that attacked the Italian government for accepting to negotiate secretly and illegally with the Sicilian Mafia. There is an on-going trial on the issue and, undoubtedly, the film did not go down well with the politicians at the centre of this trial.

“Festivals are there, they exist, also to respect the authors’ freedom of expression, to offer them an independent space where films can be seen, discussed, sometimes even objected to, but without any form of political censorship. The authors’ freedom of expression is matched with the independence and the freedom of the festival programmers, who cannot be influenced by politics in their decision-making process.

“Programmers assume their own responsibilities, sometimes they have to make risky, painful choices which are destined to be controversial, but this is the only way to build a great festival and to secure its credibility, its international prestige, and its future.

“To date, this is the way it has been for BIFF and I wish this is going to remain the same in the future. For this reason, the Venice International Film Festival fully supports BIFF, its programmers, and its director. We are on the side of Mr. Lee and his collaborators and we hope that Korean politicians will realise that it would be a wrong choice to shut off the voice of BIFF – a voice that, over all these years, gave an extraordinary contribution to the dissemination of Korean cinema culture throughout the world,” he said.

Messages from filmmakers

Iranian filmmakers in exile, the Makhmalbaf family of Mohsen, Samira, Maysam, Hana and Marziyeh, who were honored with a retrospective at Busan in 2000, sent a statement saying, “Until today if one had asked me what was the difference between South and North Korea, the very first word that would have come to my mind would have been “censorship”. If censorship takes over, then finding the distinguishing factor will become harder and harder.”

On the slippery slope of diminishing freedoms, they said they had “no doubt that those people who feel that the pressure on Busan film festival is for the festival people to deal with and will have no effect on them, will be proven wrong very soon. There is an Iranian saying which reads as follow: “If as an architect you lay the first brick wrong, the whole building is destined to collapse at some point.” What is wrong from the beginning cannot be validated by passage of time.”

Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul said, “I hope that the Korean government considers the intervening action towards the Busan International Film Festival very carefully. It risks destroying a solid foundation that it has been building for the past 20 years. Please continue building its strength by providing it freedom and respect it deserves.”

He was joined in this sentiment by Malaysian Taiwanese director Tsai Ming Liang, who described himself as “very upset” at the Busan news and hoped the government would not interfere with the festival, saying, “Politics are passing, but the values of liberal democracy are the most invaluable.”

Hong Kong filmmaker Yonfan said, “Like many of my fellow filmmakers I am a huge fan of Busan International Film Festival. It’s a very important festival globally. We’re extremely concerned that the chairman of the organization committee asked to withdraw a film from the festival program last year. It is a surprise to hear such a deed from a civilized society like Korea. And we’re following this very closely. I hope to see this chapter will end soon and Busan International Film Festival will go on to make another edition of its very successful festival this fall undisturbed.”

Similar opinions were shared in individual messages from vice president of the China Film Association Yin Li and his fellow Chinese directors Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai and Cai Shang Jun.

Bangladeshi filmmaker Mostafa Sarwar Farooki, whose ties in Busan include 2012 closing film Television, remarked upon the “support and inspiration from Busan” for filmmakers across Asia, “which is why it has become the top Asian festival right now.”