One typically associates the Cannes Film Festival with glitz, glamour, and lots of artistic edge. This year, however, the annual international film festival was the site of a covert effort to debut a film that would no doubt infuriate the most influential authoritarian regime on the globe today: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“Revolution of Our Times,” a documentary by filmmaker Kiwi Chow, was filmed on the ground during the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and takes a deep and intricate look at the varying groups behind the often-violent pushback against the encroachment of Beijing’s policies on the historically liberal administrative zone.
The title comes from the movement’s slogan — “Liberate Hong Kong: Revolution of Our Times”— which was chanted by hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of the city in 2019, but which is now illegal to utter or display in writing following the imposition of Beijing’s restrictive national security law last year.
For the film, Chow worked to gain the trust of several groups involved in the momentous protests, including the student protesters, journalists, peaceful demonstrators, and “front-line vigilantes” called “the Valiants,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.
The film also “documents the sharp increase in police brutality as Hong Kong became engulfed in deadly street battles, including the pivotal 12-day siege of the city’s Polytechnic University,” the outlet explains. “In one of the movie’s most shocking moments, a body is seen being pushed out of a high-rise window, with Hong Kong authorities alleged to have kidnapped and murdered several of the movement’s central figures. The film ends with the imposition of Beijing’s National Security Law last year, which rendered nearly any form of dissent illegal, snuffing out the movement and sending scores of former protestors overseas or underground.”
While there is certainly no question that Chow would have never been able to screen his opus in Hong Kong, it took careful tact on the part of the Cannes organizers to make sure that their other Chinese filmmakers weren’t punished by mere association with the “Revolution of Our Times.”
As the Reporter recently detailed, Cannes kept the film a complete secret from festival-goers until the very end, after all the other Chinese contributors had screened their work. This was to ensure that Beijing officials could not force them to pull their films from the festival and, one imagines, so that Chow’s countrymen at Cannes could truthfully deny knowing that they were participating in an event that featured his film.
They had good reason to fear the CCP’s response, and one wonders how many Chinese filmmakers will be able to attend the film festival in the future.
Earlier this year, China refused to air the Academy Awards ceremony for the first time in decades because a Norwegian filmmaker’s short documentary about the Hong Kong protests was nominated for an award.
Chinese filmmakers have also been virtually barred from attending Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse Film Festival ever since a filmmaker briefly voiced his support for a free Taiwan during an acceptance speech in 2018.
The CCP’s influence over the film industry expands far beyond backlash against filmmakers who associate with even the tiniest whiff of anti-CCP sentiment. It gains its greatest influence by exploiting Hollywood’s fear that their films and products will not be distributed within China’s lucrative market.
This is what Chow was up against when he filmed, edited, and ultimately put together his documentary in Hong Kong … and what the Cannes organizers were contending with when they agreed, to their credit, to debut the impactful work.
Chow was not in attendance, choosing to remain at his home in Hong Kong. “I never thought of quitting,” he told the Reporter not long after Cannes. “Under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, freedom of speech is guaranteed, so I believe this is actually legal work. All of the footage was shot before the introduction of the National Security Law, so I believe my film is legal, and this factor should reduce some of the risks.”
In 1997, Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule after 100 years as a British colony. The old imperialists were out, but their ideas of free speech and due process remained as per the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which turned Hong Kong back to China and was supposed to establish the “one country, two systems” form of government that Hong Kong had practiced for over two decades.
This meant that Hong Kong would retain a high degree of autonomy and have all the rights accorded to its citizens under the Basic Law, a kind of mini-constitution. Beijing, however, never intended to keep its word on maintaining these dual systems, and it soon became clear that the new imperialists wanted their whole empire back under their thumb. The Hong Kong protests broke out in response to an extradition bill that would have undermined the due process rights guaranteed under their system by sending Hongkongers to China for trial and punishment.
The CCP would have none of this quest for “self-determination,” however. Swiftly and adroitly, they have moved in and all but completely dismantled the remains of British rule — and western-style liberty. The key moment came when Beijing passed the National Security Law, which conflated any dissent, including speech, with terrorism and secessionist intent. Among many other things, the law effectively bans protests and strips anyone charged under the law (including companies, non-residents, and even those living outside of Hong Kong) of most due process protections, including the right to a public trial by jury.
Last month, Tong Ying-kit became the first person convicted under the National Security Law. He was sentenced to nine years in prison for inciting sedition and terrorism for his use of the phrase that inspired Chow’s film — “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.”
Police have arrested dozens of other activists. The city’s top pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, was forced to shut down after its offices were raided, writers and executives arrested, and assets seized by authorities.
Just this month, one of the largest groups behind the 2019 protests, The Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), disbanded in the face of the “unprecedented severe challenge” imposed by Beijing.
Chow is taking extra steps to protect himself. Since Cannes, he has sold off all of the rights to the film and destroyed all his footage, which he told the South China Morning Post was a “kind of risk assessment…. In Hong Kong, I did not do any distribution of the film and I don’t have any clips with me,” he said.
Yet he refuses to leave his home.
He told the Reporter that “if you leave out of fear, this is not freedom — it’s not what I consider freedom. The freedom I have in mind is not about my physical body; it’s about my spirit, and also my soul. In this moment, I feel very comfortable and peaceful deep down inside myself. I wouldn’t feel that if I left Hong Kong under these circumstances.”
Meanwhile, the subjects of his film are at an even greater risk of recourse, although Chow took great pains to obscure their identity in the film. Chow told the Reporter that a “comrade” that he interviewed and followed in the film, whose actions taken during the film could land him in prison, has been one of the most vocal supporters of his work.
“I’m so touched, and I’m now very emotional, because your film is very important to tell the world what happened in Hong Kong,” this unnamed activist told him, according to Chow.
“This is why the documentary is so important for me — to present the whole picture,” Chow said. “This gave my project another meaning — to simply record history. I hope and I have tried to persist in this project without making any calculations. Whenever I thought some element was needed to tell the story, I recorded it, or I presented it — without any other calculations other than whether it was necessary to tell the full story.”
In modern-day Hong Kong, as the island’s once-cherished civil liberties have begun to quickly fade away, simply telling a story, as it happened, is an incredibly powerful and defiant act.
We must take heed of this cautionary tale as our own freedoms, the freedoms that we cherish in our spirits and souls and that are engrained in the bedrock of our nation, and the foundation of who we are as Americans appear to also be slipping away.
Telling the truth is a powerful act. This is why the freedom to tell it is so sacred — and so very dangerous to tyrants.