Movie begins as a double exposure of two empty classrooms in two different high schools. The upper half of the screen pans one way, the lower pans the other, and we see differences. The split screen stops and we simply cut between the schools. One of them is high tech everything: plastic contoured chairs, smart desks, gleaming shined floors, big white boards that respond to “markers” the way MacPaint responds to a mouse. The other school features hard wood chairs, some shared tables (instead of individual desks), standard chalkboards, some floor cracks that reveal the red earth below the anodyne brown floor. Portraits on the walls tell stories: the high-tech classroom features only portraits of Asian people, while the lesser-tech school shows off various Muslim prophets as well as Jesus Christ and Nelson Mandela and other portraits inscribed with a person’s name and then, to give three examples, “Hausa Tribe,” “Igbo Tribe,” and “Fulani Tribe.” Perhaps this school even has a picture of Malala Yousafzai. The classrooms also feature flags, and some audience members will recognize the high-tech class as adorned by the flag of South Korea, the other class flying the flag of Nigeria. Both classes have standard calendars, and both say: April 2014.
The Korean classroom, really classrooms, fill up with chattering Korean 16- and 17-year-old male and female students. Their lessons are neither wholly subtitled into English nor particularly lingered upon; the audience just gets quick pieces. We catch one teacher talking about the importance of upcoming college entrance exams. Another teacher warns them not to forget about their studies while on their class field trip to Jeju. Yet another teacher tells them to forget about work in Jeju and try to have fun! In at least one classroom, every single kid has a laptop. At the end of any class period (to the surprise of most American audiences) every student says in unison (in Korean) “Thank you for the lesson.”
This is all cross-cut with the Nigerian school, which is empty but for a few administrators. Cut from there to front doors of various homes in Africa as teenage girls hug their parents, apparently saying goodbye. Some of the “doors” are to little more than tents, as in an Ousmane Sembene movie. Cut again to the exterior of the school, including the nameplate Government Girls Secondary School, and see that only a few young-looking armed guards are standing around the school.
Cutting back to the exterior of the Korean school (for viewers who can read Korean, the nameplate says Danwon High School, founded 2005), the students spill out into the courtyards and talk to each other as they hold their ubiquitous smartphones. The movie shouldn’t linger on any particular students; the effect is meant to be something like the film United 93, where you see everyone, but no one in particular is meant to draw your focus. The students are texting, IMing, selfie-taking, twittering, emoticoning, using Between (it’s a Korean thing), facebook-updating, vine-uploading, et cetera. Perhaps one student is watching Titanic on her phone when another one says something like “That’s bad luck!” The Titanic watcher could respond by pointing to the date seen on the screen (part of Jack’s portrait of Rose): April 14 1912.
Back in Africa, Xs on the calendar make it clear that today is April 14, 2014, and the classrooms suddenly fill up with happy 16-, 17-, and 18-year-old female students, most of them wearing burkas. Lessons are in English, and we catch snatches of teachers saying things like Welcome Back, good to see you, thanks for returning for exams, we’ve hired extra security so don’t worry, like that. Again, the aesthetic is high realism, almost docudrama, like United 93 or Fruitvale Station. No one character is lingered upon for too long. The students crack down and take their exams in silence.
Back in Asia, the classrooms are now empty, but we quickly see why as the scene shifts from Danwon to the port city of Incheon: the same students we’ve already seen are now boarding a ship, the MV Sewol. The teenagers hug their parents goodbye, in shots that should echo the shots we saw in Africa. The captain of the ship, 69-year-old Lee Joon-seok, is seen at the bridge, tending to business. One of his crew members is talking about a fog bank that delayed a nearby ship for more than an hour. Another one is questioning how much extra cargo they should really take on. Yet another one says they’ll be fine. The captain says that he warned the Sewol owners about it, but he nonetheless nods approval as the bottom of the ship fills up with crates as well as vehicles.
Back in Africa, vehicles are being gathered in a more open-air space – dozens of open-air trucks brought to a large red field. As we met Lee Joen-seok, now we meet Abubakar Shekau, a wild-eyed, 40-year-old bearded man with an AK-47 around his chest. Shekau seems happy with the gathering vehicles and other militants. Some civilians watch from the road as the cargo trucks and motorcycles gather.
Cut to a police station, a little later, as some of these civilians warn the police of a gathering storm of militants. When the civilians leave, the police look at each other like “what do we do?” One says, “hide.”
At the Government Girls school, as the sun sinks low, the girls finish their exams and make their way to their dorms. They chatter amiably with each other – far fewer smartphones to get in their way. Many speak in English; others use tribal dialects. They eat a healthy African feast with their teacher-mentors. They laugh.
Back on the Yellow Sea, the Korean students eat their more Asian-style dinner with their teacher-mentors in a cafeteria on the Sewol. They laugh. Cross-cut, parallel action as hundreds of Asian teenagers go to bed in their ship cabins and hundreds of African teenage girls go to bed in their dorms.
Now about 20 minutes into the movie. The sun rises on the Sewol. Captain Lee Joon-seok puts a 25-year-old third mate in charge of the ship as he leaves the bridge. Cut to Abubakar Shekau at night in Africa, who says, to a group of gathered militants, “Go.”
On the Yellow Sea, the third mate furrows his brow, as though he sees something troubling. He swerves the boat hard-a-starboard, to the right. Cut down to the cargo bay, where the many crates and many vehicles unsettle and fall to the left with a loud BANG! Cut to the reaction shots of several students, who clearly hear the noise while playing with their phones in their cabins. Some of them joke with each other about it.
Cut to the Nigeria night, and the militants arrive at the school in many numbers. Some of the guards simply run, some surrender, some fight. The fighters are killed, and the school takes collateral damage, as one can see in an extremely wide high-angle shot which also shows the militants making their way to the dorms.
In another wide shot, out on the Yellow Sea, the Sewol begins to list, list, and list some more, cross-cutting with the increasingly panicked third mate. He pulls the ship to a stop as a furious Captain Lee bursts into the bridge room.
Smash cut to Abubakar Shekau bursting into the dorms of the Government Girls Secondary School, his many accomplices with him. They systematically go through the dorms, waking every girl, telling them to dress and accompany them outside. A few refuse, ask questions. One militant fires a gun into the air. The girls are herded like cattle into the dorms’ halls and then outside. Shekau says over the loudspeaker, “Stay calm, stay calm, everything will be all right.”
On the MV Sewol, Captain Lee says over the loudspeaker (subtitled in English) “Stay calm, stay calm, everything will be all right.” He tells them to remain in their rooms because they’ll be safer there. The students look at each other with cynical expressions. The ship is now stopped – one can tell from the absence of the engine hum – and the floor is at about a 60-degree angle. Some students who are together try improvising games with the tilted floor. One texts a group, “were we ever given any safety instructions?” One texts back, “What instructions do you need? Put on a life vest.” Another: “Yeah, where’s that?” (Texts are in Korean, subtitled for us.) One student calls the Korean version of 911, and manages to talk to the Coast Guard for several minutes. A few girls are smart enough put on life vests. Cross-cut with a crew member in the cargo bay, who sees the severity of the problem of the shifted cargo. He radios the bridge with the information. On the bridge, the captain and his lead crew look at each other with paling faces.
Cut to the paling faces of the near-300 girls being dragged out of their dorms and into the middle of the Nigerian night. Bearded men bearing machine guns make sure that none of them get out of line. Nonetheless, one girl whispers to another “we should run.” The other whispers “and get shot?” The first one replies, “If they have to use their guns, the noise will alert the police.” The other whispers, “Are you crazy?…You go right ahead.” The first girl makes a break for it, screaming “HELP!!” She is shot dead.
On the MV Sewol, the bridge calls the Korean Coast Guard. “Mayday, mayday,” they say, or the equivalent. They explain the situation. Meanwhile the students are still texting each other. One whose cabin window is now pointed skyward texts, “If this keeps up, I’m popping open this window and jumping into the water.” Cut to another student reading that, looking at his cabin window, which is now covered with the Yellow Sea. They hear the voice on the loudspeaker again, that of Captain Lee saying “Don’t panic, everything is under control.”
Cut to Chibok, Nigeria, where Abubakar Shekau says “Don’t panic, everything is under control. We are liberating you from Western imperialism and domination. Islam is welcoming you back. You have nothing to fear from us.” The students file into the open-air trucks with downcast expressions. One student whispers something inaudible to another. She replies softly, “We have to trust them.”
Back on Korean waters in the Sewol, a student says to another “We have to trust them.” Cut to the bridge, where they are waiting impatiently for a helicopter and rescue ships to arrive. “We have to trust them,” one crew member says. The Vessel Traffic Service, or VTS, is talking to Captain Lee, and as the bridge clock reads 9:23 VTS orders Lee to order the passengers to wear life vests. The crew replies that their intercom is now broken, to which VTS says that they must go around the ship and tell people in person. VTS now says that it doesn’t have enough information and that the Captain must decide whether or not to evacuate the ship. The Captain says he wants to see the helicopter and ships first. But the bridge is listing at near-90 degrees now, and taking on water, soon to make further communication impossible.
Many passengers all over the Sewol are now frustrated, even yelling. Then, they all hear it, off in the distance: the sound of a helicopter. Cross-fade this noise with the sound of dozens of trucks starting their engines. Cut back to Nigeria, where the trucks are driving into the jungle. Many students look down with quavering lips. Others look at each other with despair. As the trucks roll out, a few gunmen now set fire to the school. Closeups of desks, chairs, blackboards burning. The school burns.
Cross-fade the burning with water rushing into cabins of the Sewol, a dance of fire and water. Near this water, many Korean students are losing their sense of humor. As the bridge clock (still barely above water) reads 9:30, Captain Lee gives the intercom order to abandon ship. A few Danwon students hear him, but we see that many do not. Nonetheless, some teenagers push their doors open into flooding hallways. Scenes begin to resemble some of the watery hallway scenes of Titanic – except that there’s no authority figures, no way to open most exit doors, and a horrible 90-degree tilt to everything.
In the Nigerian night, in the back of a Ford pickup truck, one girl shares eye contact with a perhaps-14-year-old armed militant, who looks at her like he wants to defile her. She closes her eyes and then, almost like an Olympic diver, thrusts her head back and jumps/backward-dives off of the Ford. She lands in the middle of brush, and the 14-year-old stands and shoots, but no one hears her scream. The girls look at each other: did she just successfully escape? The 14-year-old yells “Stop! Stop! One got away!” The driver of the Ford hears him and laughs. He radios Abubakar Shekau, who answers from the front of the convoy, “We don’t stop til we get there.” Two other girls in the Ford look at each other and they dive off into brush as well, followed by gunshots. The boys in the back of the Ford are furious. One shoves a gun into one girl’s face and says “The next one who jumps, I may miss you but I won’t miss her.” The girls hesitate. Then, the dense jungle gives way to more of an open clearing. The boys smile widely as the girls gulp.
On the Yellow Sea, it’s more like full-blown panic. Every passenger with the opportunity now stands on the exterior of the listing ship. Oddly, only two lifeboats appear to have deployed. The bridge clock now reads 9:38, but it’s underwater, and the bridge is abandoned as VTS tries to call it. The radio shorts out. But the crew, now assembled on the listing hull, uses binoculars and sees other boats approaching. They jump off the listing ship. As the crew goes, so go most of the passengers – about 150 of them. Everyone scrambles for the two lifeboats, except for some of the crew, who know to wait for the nearby ships. Captain Lee treads water, purses his lips. The third mate is there and says, “They trusted us.” Another crew member sees them both and says, “What do you think you’re going to do when you get back?”
In the lead truck of the Nigerian convoy, the driver says to Shekau lasciviously, “What are we going to do with them when we get back?” “Nothing,” Shekau snaps. He says something along the lines of treating the girls in accordance with laws of Islam, or else they’re no better than the West. Boko Haram has to be a shining example, not a harum. The trucks are now moving through dense jungle again, and occasionally, girls escape, as the others had. Others are shot. Now cross-cutting faster between Africa and Asia, we see little actions of heroism and escape and cleverness from both groups of teenagers – in the convoy and on the sinking ship. (These scenes can be written later, as more details emerge.) This cross-cut, Asian-African-hybrid-scored montage culminates in two near-jailbreaks: in Asia, the kids batter down one door and manage to get a dozen kids to daylight, while in Africa, a couple of girls in the truck bringing up the rear manage to overpower the driver and swerve the truck into a ditch. With the truck at an angle and most of that truck’s militants shaken, the group of girls run into the bush, free.
Then, reality sets in. Shekau is angry to hear about the last truck, and he orders that his men wake up and get serious with these girls. The men point guns at private parts and yell and curse and it seems that the remaining girls are okay with surrendering. Many are crying, shaking. On the Sewol, similar. One couple kisses, crying, as the water floods into their cabin. Another tie their life vests together, hoping for more buoyancy. Many are sending panicky texts and calls, but these aren’t answered, and one kid guesses that they’re out of range. One sets his camera videotaping as the water level comes to his head. More and more kids are overwhelmed by seawater. One student yells into his phone (subtitled in English), “This isn’t fair! We were just on a field trip! It can’t end like this – it can’t! This can’t be happening!”
Those words echo as we look at closeup, disconsolate faces of the girls in the pickup trucks arriving at some sort of compound deep in the jungle. They get out, and Shekau announces that this is their new Muslim home, and it will remain such until President Jonathan listens to reason. Extreme wide shot of the compound as the morning pre-dawn light just begins to trickle in.
Extreme wide shot of the scene on the Yellow Sea – but this shot is actually from the helicopter who’s slowly airlifting people off of the Sewol. The process is long, and the ship is listing at almost 180 degrees now. It’s capsized. “Madame President?” a voice says. “You may want to look at this.” Cut to the office of President Park Guen-hye, who sees the footage. She also sees that the news media is picking it up. She tells one of her aides, “Get me the Prime Minister, now.”
In Nigeria, the girls are escorted to bed in their new barracks. They lie down, but it doesn’t seem like anyone wants to do much sleeping. One of them keeps crying, whimpering. Another girl next to her says “Shut up!” Pan across the barracks and see that the number of girls abducted numbers in the hundreds.
Pan through the Sewol and see that the number of teenagers drowned numbers in the hundreds. Finish the pan on the one boy who made the successful 911 call – he’s dead.
TITLE CARD: THREE DAYS LATER
Parents, parents, parents. Cross-cutting between parents in Asia and Africa. In Africa, parents plead with police for help. They talk to the news. But Chibok is empty, bereft, and the police seem useless. One mother is having an argument with a news outlet in Chibok; she says that 330 girls were taken, while the website says only 260 missing.
A TV in Korea says three numbers: 179 rescued, 36 confirmed dead, 260 missing. Parents stand watching the TV at a waiting location on the coast in Jindo, waiting, holding each other, praying for news. An official enters the hall and everyone stops breathing. He says a surname. A couple of parents come forward, their shoulders shaking. He tells them that yes, their daughter is dead. They hug each other, but seem to keep their emotions in. Then the official surprises the group by saying he has one more name. When he says it, a woman in the room starts wailing like a harpy. “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO” (in Korean). One parent walks in and shushes the crowd. He says that the Vice-Principal’s body was found outside, hanging from a tree, with a note attached. He offers to pass around the note, but first he quotes it: “Surviving alone is too painful when 200 lives are unaccounted for.” This leads to shock, and then eventually some chittering amongst the parents. Then another parent shushes them all for the sake of the TV. The news reports that the captain and two crew members have been arrested and face manslaughter charges, with the reminder that South Korean law explicitly requires a captain to remain on a ship in a disaster. The crowd cheers.
New numbers on the screen: 179 rescued, 38 dead, 258 missing. Back in Nigeria, as the same mother, Hadiza Bala Usman, continues to argue with the journalist, an army announcement comes over the wire: 100 of 129 kidnapped girls have been freed. The reporter changes his site to reflect this information as Usman storms out of the place.
TITLE CARD: THREE WEEKS LATER
Flashing, quick edit montage as yellow ribbons “go viral” all over South Korea and the hashtag #bringbackourgirls “goes viral” all over the world. Danwon High School is a yellow-ribbon-covered memorial, as is a nearby public garden. Cut to the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, which is an empty burned-out relic, a shell of what it was. In the town of Chibok, people gather at their TVs because there is a reported new video of the Boko Harum group. As they wait, they watch the tape of their President, saying that he’s doing everything he can to find the girls, but the parents haven’t supplied enough information. The parents watch this with outrage. A reporter asks why the President waited three weeks – until yesterday, May 4th – to say something. Was it because of growing international outrage? The parents cheer. The reporter clams up as the Abubakar Shekau video plays. Shekau says a lot of crazy things on the video, including that Allah told him to sell the girls, Allah says slavery is fine, they should have been married at nine and not studying, and he’s treating the infidels amongst them the way that Muhammed says to treat infidels. The parents cry and speculate about finding them across various borders. The TV now says that 276 girls are still missing.
Back in Korea, there are still parents in Jindo, though very few now. The TV reports that 264 are dead, 38 missing. One parent asks if he can switch the TV to the BBC. He switches it, to reveal a sort of summary story about the 937 tons allowed on board and the more than 3000 tons that the boat was hauling. The BBC also says that Korea is under-regulated, and that their ships don’t really have safety protocols, certainly none that were communicated to the passengers. The parents frown at this. The report goes on that Koreans blame their government for a rather slow Coast Guard response to the sinking, and says Prime Minister Jung Hong-Wan has resigned “but is that enough?” A parent looking at her phone says they need to change the TV back to Korean news. They do, and see a new report: a diver has died in the searching for bodies. Most of the parents just look ashen-faced at this new information. One says (in Korean): “Good.”
Cut to a town called Gamboru Ngala as a contingent of the Nigerian military, acting on a tip, leaves the town to find the Boko Haram hideout. A couple of townspeople beg them not to go, but the commanding officer says they have to find these girls. They leave the town. Moments pass like in a Sergio Leone film. Then Boko Harum storms the town and kills and burns everyone and everything in it.
First, an update of events, which will hopefully include the freedom of the Chibok girls.
Second, a disclaimer: the Sewol ship sinking and the Chibok kidnapping were actually separated by about 24 hours, with creative license taken in the editing. The point of this movie was not to create some sort of false equivalence between these two tragedies, but instead to make us question the very nature of how we react to and commodify such events. Too often, we hear about such things and say: that’s only in Africa or that’s only in Asia. By going to two sides of the globe and showing two cases of 300+ high school students betrayed by people they trusted, we hoped to make their story less local, more universal. By showing what these teenagers shared and didn’t share with each other, we hoped to show what they have in common with everyone.
(You know, like Babel. That’s what I call populist cinema.)