“If we burn, you burn with us”: a taste of Hong Kong’s protests in four films

With no conciliation in sight, Hong Kong’s ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations have embraced the process of collective activism as a goal in itself, four recent documentaries made in the midst of the struggle suggest.

Matt Turner

Hong Kong’s 2014 ‘Umbrella Revolution’ as documented in Evans Chen’s We Have Boots (2020)

Hong Kong’s 2014 ‘Umbrella Revolution’ as documented in Evans Chen’s We Have Boots (2020)

“This movement will go on forever, since the world will always remain unjust,” says an activist interviewed in Evans Chan’s We Have Boots (2020), a documentary tracking the various waves of the pro-democracy protests that have taken over Hong Kong in recent years.

Watching the new nonfiction films included in International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Ordinary Heroes strand – made across a number of years and dealing with different aspects of the protests – viewers received a striking sense of how the tensions have developed in such a short space of time, as well as the social and economic conditions that have informed them. As well as showing how the protests have progressed, the films also display a change in the mentality of those involved. Smaller-scale and mostly student-led in 2014, the protests look radically different five years later. Two million citizens took to the streets for one assembly in 2019, and police unleashed more than one thousand canisters of tear gas at protestors in a single day on another. Similarly, a movement that seemed naive and somewhat unsure of itself in 2014 looks by 2019 like an agile, organised collective unit, moving, like the Bruce Lee mantra they have adopted, “like water”.

Beyond all of this, though, the strand’s films convey the challenges of effectively documenting a revolution that is developing daily: a leaderless mass movement that has clean divides (‘pro-democracy’ vs ‘pro-Beijing’) and clear objectives (“FIVE DEMANDS, NOT ONE LESS!”), yet seems to have no foreseeable end in sight.

We Have Boots (2020)

We Have Boots (2020)

We Have Boots, which looks primarily at the 2014 ‘Umbrella Revolution’, acts something like a post-mortem, with Chan interviewing Hong Kong activists and intellectuals about the failures of this phase of the movement. The bulk of the film focuses on a 79-day-long occupation of the city’s business centre that occurred after it was announced that any candidate standing for the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive would require selective pre-screening, thus confirming their allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party in advance of the public vote. The fifth of the aforementioned five demands, ‘universal suffrage’ – or Hong Kong’s ability to select its own governors without external interference – is a fundamental cause of the unrest. Promised as part of the 1997 handover from Britain, it remains something that Beijing will likely never concede.

Aesthetically all over the place and scattershot in its approach, We Have Boots expects too much pre-existing knowledge from unsuspecting viewers, flicking amongst talking heads and hurling volumes of information at us. Despite this chaotic form, it does remain engaging. Picking out some key events in Hong Kong’s recent history – such as the 2015 disappearance of several booksellers accused of selling banned texts, one of whom later resurfaced after a long spell in detention in China – Chan’s film shows how various moments added momentum to the pro-democracy movement, triggered a turn in the tide of public opinion, or convinced activists of the need for more radical action. By the time the film jumps forward to the current day (with footage recorded just weeks before the premiere in Rotterdam) viewers have gotten a solid sense of how things have got to where they are now. Many of those who were interviewed have landed jail sentences, passing the work over to the next generation who have new tactics in mind. As one indignant masked protestor says, “This is payback time.”

Yellowing (2016)

Yellowing (2016)

Chan Tze-woon’s Yellowing (2016) tackles the same subject, but with a more microcosmic focus. Embedding himself within the 2014 occupation (and getting punched and pepper sprayed alongside protestors for doing so), Tze-woon gives a subjective perspective on events, narrating with hindsight. What is most interesting about his film is how it depicts decision-making processes within a spontaneous collective action, as well as the logistical demands of organising. Some protestors divide duties and gather supplies in order to sustain the movement and ensure its longevity, whilst others consider moral quandaries or debate strategies for the protest’s next steps.

Soliciting opinions from everyone he meets, Tze-woon effectively captures a cross-section of a growing young popular movement and the sense of community and camaraderie burgeoning within its ranks. One of the simplest proclamations offered is the most affecting: “I know I have violated the law, but I don’t think I have done anything wrong.”

Another more beleaguered individual offers his own eloquent summation of the state of affairs as he sees it, claiming that young people in Hong Kong live in a permanent state of “overwhelming sorrow mixed with absolute anger”, fighting for freedoms that have long been eroded and for changes that they are well aware will most likely never occur. Yellowing paints quite a bleak picture, but is illuminating due to the directness of its access; its filmmaker is continually present on the frontlines.

Independence campaigner Edward Leung in Nora Lam’s Lost in the Fumes (2018)

Independence campaigner Edward Leung in Nora Lam’s Lost in the Fumes (2018)

The approach in Nora Lam’s Lost in the Fumes (2018) is very different. A portrait of Edward Leung, it looks at the pressures put on protestors who have entered public life. A prominent member of ‘Hong Kong Indigenous’ – a militant group that opposes all aspects of Chinese influence in Hong Kong and favours full independence – Leung stood in the 2016 by-election for the city’s Legislative Council.

In the film he is seen struggling with his rising visibility and the demands of electoral politics: the need to balance ideals against the likely outcomes that will arise from sticking to them. “My greatest fear is watching myself become the people I despise”, he says at one point in this candid, often perturbing film following his campaign.

As with We Have Boots, watching the inevitable unfold proves heartbreaking. As well as being barred from the elections for advocating independence, Leung was sentenced to six years in jail on a rioting charge in the year that the film was released. As well as vividly displaying the personal costs individuals involved have experienced, the film also shows the pace of transformation within the protests, and how marginal positions have quickly become pushed towards the centre. Leung’s slogan, ‘LIBERATE HONG KONG, THE REVOLUTION OF OUR TIMES’, coined during his 2016 campaign, was adopted widely during the 2019 assemblies.

If We Burn (2020)

If We Burn (2020)

That slogan is one of many rallying cries that can be heard in James Leong and Lynn Lee’s intense, immersive If We Burn (2020). Consisting almost entirely of observational material ingeniously edited to appear as if it is occurring in real time, the film captures the night that protestors stormed Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building, bludgeoning the fortified entrances with makeshift battering rams in order to break into the parliamentary chamber. Incensed by the announcement of a bill (since retracted) that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to China, the crowd detect a need for more radical, impactful action. Filmed in raw, roaming steadicam, If We Burn’s on-the-ground footage is captivating, each sequence cut (and soundtracked) like an action-thriller; the tensions mounting as the situation progresses.

Like Yellowing, what is particularly fascinating about the film is how it captures the mechanics of protest. Protestors, having planned only to stage a peaceful action against a flag-raising ceremony, find themselves successfully infiltrating their government’s headquarters. The symbolic stakes are much higher, as one activist understands all too well as he tears apart a copy of the Basic Law – the document drafted alongside the handover that promised Hong Kong democracy – for the benefit of the news-cameras recording their activities. A megaphone is tossed around, granting momentary autonomy to the speaker, and the next steps are disputed. Should they engage a prolonged strategic occupation of the facility and face arrest (or death), or exit quickly and safely and risk being branded by conservative critics as apolitical rioters?

If We Burn (2020)

If We Burn (2020)

One protestor who is determined to remain inside the inner chamber, even after the police threaten a clearance using rubber bullets or worse, locks his legs around a rail and fastens himself in place. As he screams, repeatedly, that he “wants to die here”, his comrades clamber to drag him away: in this desperately moving moment, collectivity eventually prevails. All of the protestors, even those most adamant about occupation, exit the building together, convinced by a chant (“WE LEAVE TOGETHER”) that builds in momentum during the evening’s events.

This compelling sense of togetherness is what, If We Burn suggests, convinces a passive public that those that seized the council were not just troublemakers but long-ignored activists taking necessary measures to encourage democratic change. Of course, the popular protest slogan (“If we burn, you burn with us”) that is referenced in the film’s title suggests an altogether more nihilistic state of affairs.

If We Burn (2020)

If We Burn (2020)

Elvia Wilk, writing around five months after the events seen in If We Burn took place, stated that “the dogged and determined activity of the protesters – not in spite of but irrespective of the likely outcomes – demands that witnesses challenge ourselves to imagine a different way to tell the story,” arguing that a mode of storytelling that isn’t entirely focused on finalities is the only method appropriate for depicting the protests.

Leong and Lee – bringing their film to Rotterdam as a work-in-progress and intending to return to the frontlines to film further footage after – achieve this, refusing to tie things up neatly or historicise that which remains very much in motion. “No news hook can explain this daily insurrection”, Wilk continues. “But the ability to stick with indeterminacy is exactly what revolution, and the revolutionary imaginary, requires.”

The strand’s most remarkable film, If We Burn conveys the clearest sense of the state of the protests by concentrating purely on one aspect of it, using a single slice of action as a means to reflect an overall atmosphere: one where inextinguishable individual anger is being expressed by an ever-expanding decentralised collective body.

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