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Disappearing documentaries

Hong Kong once welcomed films critical of Beijing. Now they’re moving elsewhere

Top: Achmad Ibrahim/AP; Middle: Inside the Red Brick Wall; Bottom: Do Not Split; Background: iStock

Disappearing documentaries

Young protesters in gas masks sprint through a haze of tear gas in an attempt to escape the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) on Nov. 18, 2019. A camera whips around to capture police in riot gear beating students with batons, dragging them by their shirt collars, pressing their faces to the ground. Some protesters try to yell out their names and ID numbers so aid workers can check in on them later at the police station. The camera lingers on a single Vans sneaker that had fallen off its owner in the scuffle.

Their escape attempt fails as police arrest some and others run back into the university, unable to break through the riot police surrounding the campus. Clashes between the police and protesters started a day earlier after protesters set up roadblocks on the Cross-Harbor Tunnel next to the university.

Cameras capture tensions rising between protesters as they debate their next steps: If arrested, protesters face rioting charges, which carry a punishment of up to 10 years in prison. Exhausted, desperate, and afraid, the protesters take desperate measures to get out: Some rappel from a bridge down to waiting motorcycles. Others try to escape through the sewers, like a scene out of Les Misérables.

During the 2019 siege at PolyU, Hong Kong police arrest a student.

During the 2019 siege at PolyU, Hong Kong police arrest a student. May James/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

These are the images from the documentary Inside the Red Brick Wall that the Hong Kong government doesn’t want shown on the big screen. After state-owned newspaper Wen Wei Po said showing the film may violate the national security law due to its negative depictions of the government and the police, Hong Kong’s Golden Scene Cinema canceled its March screening of the documentary, which had won a Hong Kong Film Critics Award.

In response, organizers of the Taiwan International Documentary Festival (TIDF) chose to show the film on the festival’s opening night on April 30. In Shin Kong Cinema in Taipei—located above a bustling market selling electronics and custom-made wedding dresses—the film played to a packed theater. On-screen, protesters lobbed Molotov cocktails, built barricades from classroom desks and chairs, and used bows and arrows to defend the university. Yet the most powerful moments were the intimate looks at protesters—some as young as 15—grappling with whether they were willing to die for their cause.

The post-screening Q&A was replaced by a taped message from the filmmakers, identified only as Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers. They thanked the festival for showing the film, grateful freedom of expression still existed in Taiwan, the self-governing island off China’s coast. “We have not forgotten,” they said to Hong Kongers in Taiwan. “Many people continue to do what they can silently, in the hopes that one day we will be able to meet again.”

The stifling of artistic expression in Hong Kong is a startling change for a city previously known for citizens’ ability to say things the government banned in mainland China. Films, books, art, and media could criticize or mock Beijing and the Hong Kong government without retribution. That freedom allowed a generation of Hong Kongers to grow up refusing to accept the status quo and demanding the right to free elections. But now Beijing is using a new national security law and pressure campaigns to squeeze those freedoms out of each sector of Hong Kong society.

During the 2019 siege at PolyU, protesters use ropes to lower themselves from a pedestrian bridge to waiting motorbikes in order to escape.

During the 2019 siege at PolyU, protesters use ropes to lower themselves from a pedestrian bridge to waiting motorbikes in order to escape. Kin Cheung/AP

HONG KONG IS CHANGING RAPIDLY. A year and a half ago, when the siege of PolyU took place, most Hong Kongers were glued to livestreams from reporters on the scene—certain websites allowed people to watch nine livestreams simultaneously, giving them different perspectives of the battle. Thousands of Hong Kongers joined in protests to rescue those trapped inside the campus. Days later, a record-breaking 71 percent of registered voters waited in long lines to cast ballots at local-level elections. Considered a referendum on the protests, pro-democracy majorities won 17 of Hong Kong’s 18 districts. Joyous Hong Kongers popped champagne in the streets at the news, believing change was coming.

Change did come—but in the form of greater repression rather than greater freedom. After Beijing imposed a wide-reaching national security law on Hong Kong last July that criminalized dissent, activists left the region or faced arrest. Commonplace signs and slogans disappeared overnight as people resorted to speaking in code. Books by activists like Joshua Wong disappeared from libraries and bookstores.

Instead of taking liberal studies—a course on current affairs—students now must take “Citizenship and Social Development,” which focuses on instilling civic values in line with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and includes study tours to the mainland. Hong Kong’s education bureau also released guidelines for a new national security curriculum beginning this fall. It includes using a cartoon owl to warn first graders against subversion and collusion with foreign forces.

Hong Kong’s once-free press is also feeling the squeeze. Police arrested Jimmy Lai, the 72-year-old founder of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, and raided the paper’s newsroom in August. State-owned Ta Kung Pao denounced Apple Daily for “working for foreign powers” and “slandering the police force,” calling for the paper to be banned.

Public broadcaster RTHK is also undergoing a major shakeup: First the government axed its long-running satirical show Headliner last June, then replaced its director with a career bureaucrat. Since then, RTHK has canceled at least three programs, failed to renew the contract of confrontational journalist Nabela Qoser, and begun deleting shows more than a year old from its online platforms.

In response, Hong Kong citizens backed up RTHK’s YouTube channel on Lbry, a blockchain-sharing platform, according to Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), an English-language online news outlet that for now is able to continue reporting.

The night-and-day difference in Hong Kong in the past year is a sharp contrast from what followed Hong Kong’s 1997 handover from British rule back to Beijing. Many feared they would see dissidents jailed, churches forced underground, and free speech vanish.

Before the handover, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a Chinese history professor at the University of California, Irvine, visited a Hong Kong university for a screening of The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a documentary about the Tiananmen Square massacre. After the film, students asked him if he thought they’d also face tanks once Hong Kong was returned to China. Wasserstrom said then he didn’t believe something that drastic would happen, but thought perhaps Hong Kong would ban the screening of sensitive documentaries.

Yet after the handover, Wasserstrom was surprised to find one theater showed The Gate of Heavenly Peace for an entire month. At the time, the Chinese government allowed Hong Kong to continue its way of life, eager for Hong Kong to continue thriving economically.

In Wasserstrom’s 2020 book Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, he asked Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, his thoughts about how slowly Beijing initially exerted control in 1997 but then in the past few years how quickly things tightened. Patten responded: “When the snow starts melting, it melts quickly.”

IN 2015, THE LOW-BUDGET independent film Ten Years stirred up controversy and acclaim with its five vignettes depicting what Hong Kong could look like in the year 2025 as China continues to encroach into the city. Several now seem prescient: In “Extras,” a CCP apparatchik plots the shooting of two Hong Kong candidates by low-level gangsters to sow chaos and create an excuse to pass a stringent national security law.

“Self-Immolator” looks like a news report about a supporter of Hong Kong independence who sets herself on fire outside the British Consulate, alluding to the self-immolation of Tibetan monks protesting China’s occupation of Tibet. Scenes from the film look as if they came from the 2019 protests: an elderly protester choking on tear gas, students debating whether to take more violent action in the streets, and police beating protesters in a cloud of tear gas.

What filmmakers imagined could happen in 10 years became reality in half the time.

While the film only showed at one theater, tickets there quickly sold out, grossing more sales in the first week than Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Several other theaters picked up the surprise hit, while groups held private screenings at universities and public spaces around the city.

When Ten Years was nominated for a Hong Kong Film Award in 2016 (which it won), mainland China did not broadcast the awards show. China’s state-run Global Times called it a “thought virus.”

In a sign of how things have changed, this year leading Hong Kong broadcaster TVB decided not to show the Academy Awards for the first time in more than 50 years after the Hong Kong protest documentary Do Not Split was nominated for best documentary short subject. Norwegian director Anders Hammer noted Hong Kong and China’s censorship of the Oscars only brought more attention to his film, which he made available for free online. Viewers have since watched it more than 137,000 times.

Do Not Split looks at some of the key moments of the protests during the fall of 2019 as peaceful protests grew more violent. While the film is clearly sympathetic to the young protesters’ cause, it also takes an unflinching look at some of their violent tactics. In the opening scene, the cameraman follows several protesters as they push a shopping cart full of gasoline canisters to a Bank of China building, then set it on fire.

Wasserstrom noted that mainland propaganda on the protests stresses the violence and lawlessness of the protesters while claiming the international media presented a false narrative by never showing protester violence. He believes it’s the second part that Beijing is afraid the film would undermine. “If you were someone with a pro-government view and you were to see this documentary, it would unsettle part of the official government line on the protest,” Wasserstrom said. “I think in some ways that type of representation can be more threatening to a censorship regime.”

Director Ng Ka Leung accepts the Best Film award for his movie Ten Years at the 2016 Hong Kong Film Awards.

Director Ng Ka Leung accepts the Best Film award for his movie Ten Years at the 2016 Hong Kong Film Awards. Vincent Yu/AP

DESPITE THE SCREENING cancellation, neither Inside the Red Brick Wall nor Do Not Split is officially banned in Hong Kong. Yet when the pro-democracy Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU) announced it would hold private screenings of three documentaries on the Hong Kong protests—including Red Brick Wall—pro-Beijing lawmaker Holden Chow warned the group could be violating the national security law. If found guilty, charges of subversion could lead to sentences of up to life in prison.

Yet CTU Secretary-General Mung Siu-tat retorted that Chow’s accusation was nonsense and the screening would go on as planned in April, according to RTHK.

Wasserstrom noted the threats are a power play: “If films can’t be shown in Hong Kong, it means that potential revenue streams for a filmmaker dry up. The idea is to try to intimidate people from talking about something.”

Ta Kung Pao also went after the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, claiming it funded “black violence movies,” like Red Brick Wall. The council responded that any grantee that violated the national security law could have its grant money canceled. Ta Kung Pao also attacked arts group Ying E Chi, which hosted screenings for independent films including Ten Years, for distributing films with “anti-government themes.”

This has led some filmmakers to seek funding elsewhere. Makers of Hong Kong protest documentary Blue Island found a Japanese production partner—as well as others in Europe and Asia—and raised the rest of the money through crowdfunding, according to HKFP. “We didn’t expect it to be such a success,” director Chan Tze Woon told the news outlet. “I think it’s because of what happened in Hong Kong, people just want to support films that tell their stories.”

As many young people leave Hong Kong for Taiwan, the United States, or the United Kingdom, Wasserstrom says, the diaspora will draw attention to the home they’ve left behind, to remember events that can no longer be commemorated in the city, and keep the Hong Kong spirit and traditions alive. Many believe they can do more for Hong Kong outside the city.

In Do Not Split, 22-year-old activist Joey Siu describes how she had initially wanted to be a schoolteacher until the protests began. She started to spend her time on the streets protesting, speaking to international media and other countries to help. She feared her political stance would be a black mark that would prevent schools or companies from hiring her. Then once the national security law passed, she knew she was no longer safe in her hometown. Last October, Siu moved to the United States.

In the film, Siu summed up the feelings of young people in Hong Kong: “We often have the feeling that if we are losing the fight and we could no longer safeguard the future of the city … what is the meaning of thinking about our own future?”

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.



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