Cannes Screens ‘Gripping, Powerful’ Documentary on Hong Kong Protests

Recent changes to film censorship guidelines mean the film won’t be screened in Hong Kong, and its makers could be targeted under the national security law.

A feature-length documentary about the 2019 Hong Kong protest movement will be offered a last-minute screening at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday, industry media reported on Friday.

"The Cannes Film Festival made a bombshell, last-minute addition to its lineup this week, inviting select members of the international press to attend a 'confidential' screening of Revolution of Our Times," the Hollywood Reporter reported on its website.

The "gripping, politically powerful documentary" is directed by veteran Hong Kong director Kiwi Chow, and is unlikely to be screened in Hong Kong under a draconian national security law that bans scenes, slogans, and commemorative material from the protests from public view.

The film was screened at the Palais’ Salle Soixantieme on Friday, in front of around 10 international journalists, the Hollywood Reporter and Variety reported.

"Revolution of Our Times is a forensic and hard-hitting chronicle of the mass street protests that erupted in Hong Kong in the second half of 2019 — protests that were met with a brutal police crackdown, hundreds of arrests of activists and pro-democracy advocates, and the eventual imposition of near-total Chinese Communist Party control over the once-semidemocratic former colony," the Hollywood Reporter said.

"Thanks to Hong Kong’s expansive new National Security Law, imposed by Beijing in 2020, those involved in the new documentary could be subject to arrest and charges of subversion," it said.

The screening came as national security police raided the University of Hong Kong's students' union office, carrying evidence boxes away from the premises and searching student-run Campus TV and the offices of Undergrad magazine, government broadcaster RTHK reported.

The operation was linked to a motion passed by the union's council on July 7, which honored a man who died after he allegedly stabbed a police officer and then himself in Causeway Bay on July 1, thanking him for his "sacrifice."

The university, which has derecognized the students' union for "supporting terrorism," said it was obliged to facilitate the raid.

The man's death came amid widespread psychological trauma and public anger over widespread police violence against the public during the 2019 protest movement, something that is also addressed in the documentary screened at Cannes on Friday.

Revolution of Our Times uses extensive footage from the 2019 protest movement, as well as interviews with a number of the activists involved, many of whom are disguised, the Hollywood Reporter said.

"It simultaneously documents the sharp increase in police brutality as Hong Kong became engulfed in deadly street battles, including the 12-day siege of the Polytechnic University in November 2019," it said.

"In one of the film’s most shocking moments, a body is seen being pushed out of a high-rise window, with Hong Kong authorities accused of kidnapping and murdering several of the movement’s central figures," the paper reported, adding that the film is said to have been put together entirely in secret.

"A recent rewriting of the censorship rules governing Hong Kong’s film industry, once a bastion of cinematic vitality — and the home to Bruce Lee, Wong Kar Wai, Stephen Chow, Jackie Chan, Johnnie To and scores more — will ensure that Revolution of Our Times can never be screened freely in the city," it said.

All films must be vetted

The Hong Kong government announced on June 11 that all films, especially documentaries, must be vetted for breaches of the national security law.

Film censors in Hong Kong have previously focused on classifying films for suitability for specific age groups, and on whether they contain pornographic material considered unsuitable for general release.

Now, they will be required to be "vigilant" for depictions of actions that could breach the national security law, for example, by appearing to support or endorse such actions.

Such actions could include "riots, arson, criminal damage" and other violent scenes that disrupt public order and could "encourage or incite" audiences to imitate such behavior, the government said, using phrasing similar to its descriptions of the 2019 protest movement, during which some protesters fought back with Molotov cocktails, bricks and other makeshift weapons against widespread police violence.

Censors may ban public screenings altogether, or order problematic scenes deleted.

They should pay particular attention to documentaries, as such content is likely to produce "stronger feelings" in Hong Kong audiences, according to the new guidelines.

Censors should exercise extra caution, and be alert for "bias," "unverified" information or "false or misleading" scenes, and their capacity to incite the audience to similar action, the document said.

Earlier this year, organizers pulled the plug on a screening of "Inside the Red Walls," a frontline account of the 12-day standoff that ensued when riot police besieged the campus of Hong Kong's Polytechnic University (PolyU), prompting students and protesters to build barricades and fight back with makeshift weapons including petrol bombs.

The screening came as Xia Baolong, director of Beijing's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, released part of a speech lauding the national security law as having allowed the city to "bid farewell to a turbulent situation and shatter a color revolution taking place in Hong Kong."

Spontaneous demands

Political commentator Johnny Lau said Xia's comments, which included a pledge to improve the housing situation for ordinary Hongkongers, showed that he hadn't really looked at what happened in Hong Kong during the 2019 protest movement.

"Democracy, human rights, and freedom -- all of these were spontaneous demands made by the people of Hong Kong, and had nothing to do with foreign countries," Lau said.

"The government is trying to entangle the two ideas, so that it can claim to be cracking down on foreigners while actually cracking down on the people of Hong Kong," he said.

Joseph Cheng, former politics professor at Hong Kong's City University, said Xia's speech shows that the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regards Hong Kong as another "problem" to be dealt with along the lines of Xinjiang and Tibet.

"In the eyes of the Chinese leadership, the situation in Hong Kong is the same as that in Xinjiang and Tibet," Cheng told RFA. "After it imposed a full crackdown on Tibet, the government also tried to show that it was trying to win back people's goodwill."

"They see the housing issue as the biggest social issue in Hong Kong, so they are trying to improve that to improve the reputation and support for the Hong Kong government," he said.

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Luk Chung-hung on Friday hit out at RTHK for referring to Tsai Ing-wen, president of the democratic island of Taiwan, as "President."

The station should comply with the CCP's insistence that Taiwan, which has never been ruled by the CCP nor formed part of the People's Republic of China, be referred to as a province of China, and its government as a regional government, Luk told reporters.

Further sanctions imposed

Meanwhile, the United States is preparing to impose financial sanctions on seven Chinese officials working for Beijing's Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong over the ongoing crackdown on peaceful dissent and political opposition in the city, Reuters quoted two people familiar with the situation as saying on Friday.

Washington will also warn international businesses operating there about deteriorating conditions, the agency reported.

The national security law allowed China's feared state security police to set up a headquarters in Hong Kong, granted sweeping powers to police to search private property and require the deletion of public content, and criminalized criticism of the city government and the CCP.

Dozens of opposition lawmakers are awaiting trial for subversion for taking part in a democratic primary, while at least seven journalists have been arrested for "colluding with a foreign power" in connection with opinion pieces in the Apple Daily newspaper, which was forced to close after its assets were frozen in a raid by national security police on June 17.

The government has also asserted editorial control over public broadcaster RTHK, where a number of prominent journalists have been fired or sanctioned for producing content critical of the authorities.

And there are growing constraints on academic freedom at Hong Kong's universities, with events canceled, debates modified, and lecturers reported by student informants over potential violations of the law.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Chan Yun Nam, Carmen Wu and Emily Chan.

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