During the outset of Do Not Split, one of this year’s Academy Award nominees in the short subject documentary category, a group of youthful Hong Kong protestors clad in black are searching for a Bank Of China branch in the city’s Central business district. Unfamiliar with the area, they grow more desperate in their quest until they find it. When they do, they set fire to the bank’s ATM machines.
It’s just one of many astonishing action sequences in the 35 minute film, which is available to view free online. Throughout, Norwegian filmmaker Anders Hammer embeds himself with a group of Hong Kong protestors who see themselves as fighting for both their freedom and that of the territory they grew up in from what they view as encroaching and restrictive Chinese political policies. After spending nearly a year capturing the 2019 protests, Hammer showcases many instances of brave and scared protestors using their wits to fend against the Hong Kong police, whose heavy handed tactics markedly increase over the course of the film. “Only democracy can save us from this disaster of the colonial government of China,” says a young masked protestor at one point. “Just imagine what will happen if we fail.”
For the 7,000 members of the Academy, such statements, combined with what’s perceived as China’s growing antagonism with the West, surely had voting appeal. “Each category is shortlisted based on experts in their fields and all members use their judgement when determining what is best,” said one Academy member who chose to remain nameless. Following this year’s nomination, two events occurred which ramped up the zeitgeist of Do Not Split. Beijing reportedly told mainland media outlets to either boycott or downplay this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. And, TVB, Hong Kong’s main television network, decided not to broadcast this year’s Oscars for the first time in 52 years, calling their decision a “purely commercial” one.
Perhaps seduced by its striking images, what Academy voters chose to overlook is the one-sided ideology of the film. Do Not Split—a title stemming from a Cantonese phrase used to present a united front—features just one sound bite from Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. “As a responsible government,” she sombrely says, “we have the duty to use all available means to stop the escalating violence and restore calmness in society.” Otherwise, there are no interview quotes from the police as to why they felt the need to escalate their own response to the continued protests. There’s also no mention or acknowledgment of the physical protest damage that was done to the city, estimated to be in the “multi-billion Hong Kong dollars” according to Chinese newspaper Global Times. Nor is there a sense of remorse amongst the protestors that in their quest for an elusive sense of “democracy” in their home town, they were physically and mentally destroying the city of eight million in the process. Though Hammer did respond to queries about this story, he ultimately chose to decline citing time issues.
Other recent documentary films about the Hong Kong protests, several of which are freely available online, have a similar tone. During the trailer for last year’s Cockroach, a derogatory term Hong Kong police often use when referring to protestors, an unseen protestor says “We want freedom. We want democracy. We want a meaningful life.” The dialogue is accompanied by murky electronica music and visual scenes that city residents grew well accustomed to: of hundreds of thousands marching in the streets, withstanding police tear gas using umbrellas and the destructive aftermath of battles on bridges, near tunnels and across the city. Exiled Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, now living in the UK, masterminded the film by hiring a team of local Hong Kong cinematographers. They utilized 4K video technology to capture the often chaotic scenes during and after the protests which brought the city to a standstill.
Joshua Bischof, now a bartender in Texas, set up Cockroach Studios (coincidental, but not related to the derogatory term) with Oliver Gelleni in 2016. Their 90 minute documentary film Burn With Us also captures the mood of the city during the protests, culminating in one of the movement’s most contested events, a 13 day standoff between students and police at Hong Kong Polytechnic U in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of the city. “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our time!” a small group of young adults declare during the last spoken dialogue in the film. Then, the viewer is literally transported throughout the city via boat and bus as music, dissonant voices and sirens merge in the background. It’s designed to serve as a type of concluding tone poem with which to contemplate the future of Hong Kong. Bischof didn’t respond to written queries about Burn With Us.
The filmmakers behind Inside The Red Brick Wall are even more evasive, choosing to identify themselves as simply “Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers”. During their documentary trailer, showcased entirely in darkness, tension mounts as protestors and police gear up for the series of violent showdowns which unfolded at Hong Kong Polytechnic U late in 2019. All the while, a haunting electronic score heightens the sense of something momentous about to take place. In a sign of life imitating art, a scheduled commercial screening of the film this month in Hong Kong was scrapped just three hours before it was due to be shown due to “excessive attention”. It’s now slated to open the 10 day Taiwan International Documentary Festival at the end of April in Taipei. “Recording historical events, unveiling the truth, resisting oblivion—that has always been the core of documentary filmmaking, and Inside the Red Brick Wall fully embodies this spirit,” says Wood Lin, Director of the TIDF.
What all of the films have in common is a “David versus Goliath” mentality. A singular point of view, which aims to highlight the city’s struggle for that elusive and ill-defined sense of “democracy” and freedom amongst its mostly young protestors. The “enemy” are its opposing forces, be it the Hong Kong police, the city’s bureaucratic government or, ultimately, China. Aesthetically, the films also all share breathtaking action sequences that rival any Hollywood blockbuster, showcased via sharp colours, moody music, captivating soundbites and fine edits. The template, conscious or not, was the Oscar nominated 2013 documentary Winter On Fire (about a similar scenario in the Ukraine) and the filmmakers made the most of it. “It’s as if they’re making protest porn,” says one Hong Kong based documentarian who asked to remain nameless. “It’s great looking, with the best footage that drones, the latest cameras and Go-Pros can create, but it’s also missing a fair and balanced perspective.”
Though it lacks some of the visual panache of the other films, the 67 minute effort China’s Rebel City, does offer some of that balanced view within the narrative arc of a traditional documentary. Created by journalists at the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s longest running English newspaper, the film was culled from hundreds of hours of footage shot by 10 staff videographers. It also unfolds chronologically, with clear milestone dates as well as equal analysis by leading pro-democracy leaders (some recently jailed), government figures and police officers who were on the scene. Creating accurate news stories was the ultimate goal, but the documentary process unfolded naturally. “We felt an enormous responsibility to get this right, so we were constantly asking ourselves, ‘Have we missed anything? Is this fair?'”, says Mat Booth, Video Director, South China Morning Post. “Our documentary is there to explain what happened, and to offer the perspectives of some of the key figures involved which will help shed light on why both sides acted the way they did.”
Just as the city’s current fate and future are still undergoing a near daily metamorphosis, it would be fair to say that Hong Kong’s ultimate documentary—one that combines a masterful visual style with a balanced viewpoint—hasn’t been made yet either. “The issues that gave rise to this haven’t really been addressed,” says Hong Kong Field Commander Rupert Dover near the conclusion of China’s Rebel City. “When they are, it’s going to take a long time to solve them.” In the meantime, visual stories about this influential and pivotal Asian city—Academy Award worthy or not— will continue to be made and told.