By David Tizzard
Yet there is a candle that still burns. Unfaltering. Devout and steadfast. It commemorates the memory of the 304 people that lost their lives five years ago as they travelled from Danwon High School in Incheon to Jeju Island aboard the MV Sewol.
Perhaps one of the most distressing elements of the fateful incident that held the nation in a state of disbelief was that those who perished so tragically were those who obeyed the orders of the captain and his crew.
What unfolded was then seen by many as a tragic manifestation of a society that stood upon hierarchical Confucian values and housed social phenomena such as gapjil ― the physical or psychological abuse of power by those in elevated positions.
The vessel was carrying twice its legal cargo limit and yet because the inspectors contented themselves with monitoring ships from the shore, corruption as well as the flagrant abuse of regulations and rules was rife.
The Sewol incident would eventually become synonymous with a social movement directed towards political change. Ex-president Park Geun-hye was impeached amid a series of huge candlelit protests that filled Gwanghwamun every weekend and which were focused on stopping administrative incompetence and nepotism.
The country demanded transparency, the adopting of responsibility from those in charge, and ― ultimately ― truth. These voices were heard around the world and a country known for its dazzling internet speeds and glittery music became one capable of peaceful revolution.
The memorial tents to the Sewol ferry disaster were removed from Gwanghwamun late last month. Now a wooden structure stands there providing people with a visual record of the tragedy as well as others that came before it.
And yet there are still many ways in which the memory of the Sewol is being carried forth. There are those still keeping alight the flame of memory in a perpetual vigil for those who so sadly lost their lives on April 16, 2014, and they carry with them a beacon of hope.
One of those people is British film-maker Neil George. His first movie on the catastrophe, 2016's "After the Sewol," won the Best Feature Documentary award at the TMC London Film Festival. His second, "Crossroads," is now being made available online to commemorate the anniversary.
"As with many tragedies, over time the general public forgets and moves on," George said. "We have even seen this with the Sewol ferry tragedy over the last couple of years. And so I just hope that people won't forget what happened and continue to support the families in their search for the truth."
Both feature-length documentaries look at the Sewol tragedy and the political and social aftermath. In doing so, George humanizes the issue by allowing real people to tell their stories, to use their voices, to cry their tears, and ask their questions.
A remarkably powerful element of George's work is how it resonates not only with those directly affected by the calamity as well as the nation at large, but also people all around the world. It speaks on a universal level about pain, loss, change and community.
Jung Seong-wook and Kwon Oh-hyun both lost family members and they share their story of how it affected them then and now. Surviving students from Danwon High School also reveal how an unmistakable and unnamable feeling accompanies them everywhere.
Korean Studies scholar Owen Miller and author and activist George Katsiaficas speak of the broader political, cultural, and philosophical issues that came to the surface and why this was about more than a boat and a school in Incheon. This was about the whole country and the culture sewn into the fabric of its existence.
As the title suggests, "Crossroads" offers the view that the Sewol incident serves as a turning point in the country's tumultuous and tempestuous history. In doing so, it speaks of a generational divide that has the possibility of paralyzing the country.
There is a very active generation of older people in their 60s and 70s who stood in opposition to the resulting impeachment protests. A product of the temporal and spatial conditions in which they grew up: a society based on self-sacrifice, nation-building, and strong leadership in the face of a very real communist threat. They now feel cut adrift and disenfranchised by the new society.
Importantly, "Crossroads" gives these pro-Park protesters a voice, too. It shows the reality of society in an honest and candid way, which is not only admirable but essential considering the message it seeks to convey.
And then there is the youth. A generation waking up to the challenges of modernity ― where contemporary living is not simply a 5G connection and a YouTube playlist of video game tutorials, but instead the necessity to ask questions, challenge authority, and promote social change.
They live in a world filled with internet neologisms promoting single lifestyles, the giving up of marriage and dating, and finding happiness in sleep or coffee. However, "Crossroads" reminds us that not only are there people suffering, there is a need for collective spirit and action, for that is what drives a nation towards success rather than division and conflict.
While George is a lover of the country and its people, he is still able to turn his camera and his vision on to a subject that no doubt would be no extremely difficult for any with a close association or nationalist fervor unwilling to cover certain essential aspects.
His aims are clear with the project: "I once said that in 15-20 years this will be looked at as a hugely defining moment in Korean history across all areas of society. If in 20 years' time we see another tragic event similar to the Sewol ferry, it will only prove that the society learnt nothing and all those children's lives were lost in vain. I for one don't want to see that happen and so will continue to do what I can to raise more awareness and support for the families."
He does not work alone and is joined on his projects by producer Kim Han-kyul as well as a broader team of skilled film individuals who vividly capture the people and emotions in a visceral yet intellectually challenging manner.
I have seen "Crossroads" a couple of times now and feel it remains one of the most important pieces of film-making on Korea in the last few years. It is easy to forget the suffering and tragedies of other people while gripped by our own existence, yet this film speaks of a community.
Moreover, its message is matched by the intensity and honesty of its delivery. It neither preaches nor relies on saccharine moments to affect the viewer, but simply reminds us that we all have those feelings of compassion, empathy and understanding inside us should we only take the time to search for them.
Amid your various internet scrolling today, spend a few minutes for all those who lost their loves in this terrible incident, for those that still live with the grief today, and for those working hard to make the society in which we live a better place for all of us.
To commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Sewol ferry disaster, an edited version of "Crossroads" is being made available free on Asian Boss. It can be seen here.
David Tizzard (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant professor at Seoul Women's University.