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Feud over artistic independence threatens Asian film fest
The future of Asia's largest, most-awaited film festival is in question as local filmmakers threaten to boycott the red carpet over what they view as government interference.
Officials of the Busan International Film Festival say the feud between organizers and the host city Busan, its largest financial sponsor, started two years ago when the festival's program displeased government officials.
Their biggest objection was over the film, "Truth Shall Not Sink With The Sewol," which excoriated South Korean authorities for botching rescue operations during a ferry disaster that left 304 people, mostly high-school students, dead or missing.
Festival organizers defied Busan Mayor Suh Byung-soo's request they not screen the documentary, and "That's where all the problems started," Kim Ji-seok, its executive programmer, said in an interview.
Kim and other festival organizers and filmmakers say authorities retaliated, with the central government slashing its budget for the event last year by half. The city ordered an audit, which found misuse or unexplained uses of some of the festival's budget, and filed a complaint against festival director Lee Yong-kwan. Lee, whose term ended in February, is under investigation for allegedly providing 474 million won ($416,800) as commission fees to brokers without proper documentation.
The Busan festival premiers films from novice Asian directors and has often spotlighted major new talent, including Venice Film Festival Golden Lion winner Jia Zhangke. For the past 20 years, moviegoers and industry officials have watched Busan, hoping to discover Asia's next-generation Wong Kar Wai or Ang Lee.
The call to withdraw the movie was "a violation of freedom of expression," Kim said. "It's no different from censorship. It is unthinkable to censor a film festival."
Officials say the screening of the ferry disaster film in 2014 was not the reason for the festival's audit, which they say will help ensure its long-term viability. The city approved a 6 billion won ($5.2 million) sponsorship for this year's festival, level with last year.
Ahead of the Oct. 6-15 annual event, when they should be focusing on scouting new talent and viewing film submissions from around the world, city and festival officials are deadlocked over how to reform the festival's management.
The two sides are feuding over who should succeed the Busan mayor as the festival's executive chairman. Usually, the mayor gets that post due to the city's role as the event's biggest sponsor. But filmmakers want someone from the industry to be in charge.