Hong Kong protests: filmmakers decry new law that could censor a moment in history
Protesters demonstrate outside the Hong Kong police headquarters in June 2019
Protesters demonstrate outside the Hong Kong police headquarters in June 2019. A new law could see documentaries of the protests banned over national security concerns. Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
The 2019 protests spawned documentaries that may never see broad release amid growing intolerance of anything linked to the fight for democracy
Wed 3 Nov 2021 00.25 GMT
Last modified on Wed 3 Nov 2021 00.27 GMT
When the DVD came back shattered, it felt like a sign. The creators of Hong Kong protest documentary, Inside the Red Brick Wall, had sent it to regulators for a screening approval, as they’d done numerous times before without issue. But this time the returning envelope was filled with silver shards.
“We didn’t understand why, but it was intentional,” one of the anonymous creators says. “They said it was broken by the DVD machine but it was intentional – it came back in pieces. It felt intentional, like they were sending a message.”
The screening was approved, but with a higher rating restricting audiences to people aged 18 and over. But the moment marked a significant shift.
Protesters march on the streets in June 2019 against an extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China to face their judicial system.
Protesters march on the streets in June 2019 against an extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China to face their judicial system. Photograph: Vincent Yu/AP
A few months later, in March, the theatre hosting the first commercial screening of the protest film cancelled on the day. Then the government-backed funding body, the Arts Development Council of Hong Kong, reportedly withdrew a major grant from the independent film collective that had released it.
The incidents underline the growing intolerance from authorities to anything related to the pro-democracy movement, which wracked the city for much of 2019. In June 2020, Beijing imposed its national security law which vaguely criminalised acts as foreign collusion, sedition, secession or terrorism. Since then police have used it to arrest hundreds of journalists, politicians, campaigners and activists, and make risky the selling of particular books, artworks, and films.
‘Clear political censorship’
On Wednesday last week, Hong Kong’s parliament criminalised politically sensitive film-making, with a law allowing broad censorship under the guise of national security. The new law bans any films the government deems could “endorse, support, glorify, encourage and incite activities that might endanger national security”, and allows officials to stop productions and screenings. Any unauthorised screening of a banned film can incur three years in jail for those responsible, or a $1m fine.
“The goal is very clear: it’s to improve the film censorship system, to prevent any act endangering the national security,” commerce secretary Edward Yau told the Legislative Council.
Kenny Ng, associate professor at the Academy of Film at Hong Kong Baptist University told Reuters the bill was “heavy-handed”. “Adding national security clauses to the bill is clear political censorship,” he said.
Obvious targets of the law are the rush of protest documentaries released in the past 12 months. The documentaries show some of the protest movement’s most violent moments and follow individuals including some who were later arrested. Many were made by anonymous teams of likeminded people who met while filming on the frontlines of protests, and were inspired to tell a deeper story than international media.
A promotional poster for When a City Rises, a documentary charting the Hong Kong protests that began in 2019.
A promotional poster for When a City Rises, a documentary charting the Hong Kong protests that began in 2019. Photograph: Supplied
“I think that was the moment I personally felt like this is the time we should start doing what a documentary film-maker should do,” says Iris Kwong, one of seven directors behind When A City Rises, which screened at the Brisbane International Film Festival over the weekend.
“[Before then] I wasn’t going to make any films about the movement because it was something I felt like the whole world was already coming in to, so maybe I didn’t need to do it. It was a moment where I just wanted to be together with the rest of the city in this social movement.”
Several film-makers tell the Guardian the new law doesn’t affect them much more than the national security law already did. Some have already gone to ground, working anonymously, while others have fled Hong Kong.
‘Risks to everybody involved’
The biggest impact of the new censorship law, several say, will be on Hong Kong’s status as an international film hub and the city’s rich catalogue of lauded, thoughtful and often political films. Last week’s law allows Hong Kong’s security chief, John Lee Ka-chiu, to ban the screening of existing films if he determines they threaten national security. The one most often cited as a likely target is the 2015 film 10 Years, a dystopian and rather prophetic imagining of Hong Kong’s future, but there are many others.
“We have so many films critical of governments, especially from before 1997 when we were still a colony of Britain,” says the Inside the Red Brick Wall film-maker.
“It was OK to criticise the Chinese government at that time and many of our famous and iconic films are from before or around that time. So it would be a huge thing if they decided to ban those films too, because they’re very culturally significant.”
Many local productions were already partnering commercially with mainland Chinese companies, and there had been a trend towards complying with mainland sensitivities, some of the film-makers note. But what was once an issue of resources is now a matter of law.
A national security law enacted in 2020 stifled major protests in Hong Kong.
A national security law enacted in 2020 stifled major protests in Hong Kong. Photograph: Vincent Yu/AP
“With Hong Kong being a hub for film-making, and most of which are really expensive to make, if your movie gets pulled that’s really bad,” says Kwong. “So I think what will happen is the impact of this law will mean more self-censorship for non-political films.”
The Inside the Red Brick Wall film-maker says even in hindsight she and her team still would have made their film.
When A City Rises won’t screen in Hong Kong because “there are risks to everybody involved”, says Kwong, but it will be shown in Australia and several European countries over coming months. Kwong hopes the film will help global audiences understand what happened in Hong Kong.
“I think with any social movements around the world, there often isn’t a tonne that people can do, but what is worse is when people don’t know that it’s happening.”