After his deadly crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Gwangju, in May 1980, South Korean dictator Chun Doo-hwan was desperate to quell the dissent sweeping across the country. Taking his cue from the “sex, screen and sports” policy used by the United States military to distract the Japanese population from its presence after the second world war, Washington-backed Chun encouraged the production of sexploitation movies to divert public attention from the crimes of his regime – which included torture, rape and murder committed by his soldiers as they suppressed the Gwangju uprising . With Chun having manipulated cinema for his own ends, it seems reasonable that South Korean filmmakers use the same medium to confront his poisonous legacy. And that’s what has happened over the past fortnight as an array of physical and virtual film festivals marked the 40th anniversary of the May 18 Democratisation Movement, as the Gwangju uprising was known. The Korean Film Archive, for example, played host to a commemorative programme of 20 films of various genres produced during the past four decades, offering insight into how a national trauma manifested on screen. While anchored by high-profile hits such as Peppermint Candy (1999) and A Taxi Driver (2017), the festival also featured experimental shorts such as Gukpung (1981), the Seoul National University Film Research Society’s documentation of a state-backed “national festival” aimed at putting on a facade of prosperity and harmony in a country still getting to grips with the massacre and its aftermath. The programme also included Wasteland (1988), which was banned from cinemas because of its final scene, in which a soldier sets himself alight in a Gwangju burial ground for the victims. Oh! My Dream Country (1989) is an indie feature about an activist’s flight to the provinces to escape the crackdown and his eventual confrontation with a racketeering American GI. At the time, South Korea was ruled by Chun’s designated successor, Roh Tae-woo, and the filmmakers and theatre owner were brought to trial for bringing the country into disrepute. Censors also snipped 25 minutes off Song of Resurrection (1991) for its depiction of the uprising; the film wasn’t shown in its original form until 1993, after civil rights activist Kim Young-sam was elected president. In addition to the screenings, the archive also uploaded interviews with directors, actors and activists who’d had a hand in the making of these films, including Song of Resurrection director Lee Jung-kuk, Peppermint Candy actor Moon So-ri, and Gwangju resident Ju-ok, who talks about Kim-Gun (2019), a documentary revolving around a photograph of an unknown demonstrator manning the city’s barricades in 1980. These recordings were partly the result of social-distancing regulations; the archive allowed only 100 people into the theatre for each screening. Those who missed out could watch these films, and more, online through Cine Gwangju 1980, a selection of 60 features and shorts made available for streaming from May 21 to 30. As well as revisiting the classics, the programme offered plenty of new and original material, including 11 independent films made with funds from Gwangju’s municipal government and its Information and Culture Industry Promotion Agency. One section of Cine Gwangju 1980 was dedicated to foreign films tackling anti-authoritarian movements (Peter Watkins’ The Forgotten Faces , 1961) and the recollections of survivors of state-backed killings (Claude Lanzmann’s Four Sisters , 2017, and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence , 2015), with a sidebar of virtual-reality titles about pro-democracy social movements and their future. From afar, one could only marvel at the way South Korean filmmakers, artists and their municipal supporters reflect on their history. As Hongkongers resign themselves to the first anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square crackdown without a candlelight vigil at Victoria Park, the Gwangju commemorations could serve as a template for the future.