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Why the 2021 Cannes Film Festival means so much to Hongkongers

If you've been keeping up with the news lately, you might have read that the Cannes Film Festival shocked the world two weeks ago when they announced that they would be adding a "surprise documentary film" to the showcase line-up. 

The festival, which is known for its bold and timely film selections, risked angering the Chinese government by agreeing to screen Revolution of Our Times, a documentary film that chronicles the pro-democracy demonstrations that rocked Hong Kong throughout 2019. The film, which was directed by 42-year-old Hong Kong native Kiwi Chow, was first shown confidentially to a small team of journalists prior to being viewed by the festival's attendees. 

Due to government regulations censoring free speech in Hong Kong, Cannes kept its decision to feature Revolution of Our Times a secret, hoping this would prevent other Chinese filmmakers from choosing to withdraw from the festival. Those involved in the creation of this documentary are at risk of being prosecuted and charged with subversion, as per Hong Kong's new National Security Law. This would not be the first time that China's ruling Communist Party censored free speech to prevent dissension.

What is the documentary about?

Revolution of Our Times tells the story of seven teams of people, including student protestors, peaceful democracy supporters and a group fighting at the forefront self-titled "the Valiants." Viewers get a front-row seat to the street confrontations from the documentary's raw footage of police brutality and violence, arrest after arrest of protestors and devastating deaths, sometimes by murder and suicide. 

As part of the protest footage, the Hollywood Reporter says the film provides visuals of the 12-day siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University when Hong Kong government officials surrounded the school and fired teargas at those trying to escape.

Secrecy during the filming process was essential, and the whole documentary was kept on the down-low before its showing at the Cannes. Keeping the consequences of disobeying the censorship law in mind, the film credits use pseudonyms (excluding director Kiwi Chow) and the phrase "By HongKongers" to protect their safety.

Likewise, the film aims to withhold identities of speakers by blurring or physically covering faces and using fake names. The real urgency of maintaining privacy comes through a message at the end of the film that states some interviewees have been arrested since giving their testimonies.

The Cannes Film Festival is one of the most esteemed film events. By choosing to use their prominence on properly revealing the true story of Hong Kong to the world, the festival team risked severe disapproval and repercussions from China.

What is the deal with censorship in Hong Kong?

In October of 2020, the general manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted about standing in solidarity with the protesters in Hong Kong. Soon after, Chinese streaming services, sponsors and leagues cut ties with the Rockets and the NBA. Later that year, the popular television program South Park aired an episode about censorship in China, which was then immediately banned in the country. 

Because no outlets are allowed to broadcast protest-oriented news (both domestically and internationally), many Hongkongers are relying on documentary films like Chow's to tell their stories. Earlier this year, Beijing censored the Oscars after old comments made by director Chloé Zhao resurfaced and were deemed to be critical of the country. In Hong Kong, the awards show was not aired for the first time in decades as the government learned that a Norwegian filmmaker's documentary about the unrest had been nominated. The government's response to the Oscars was one of many reasons that Chow kept the film under wraps until its release, as any controversy could have derailed the project. 

Hong Kong's film industry is now governed by harsh censorship laws as well, meaning that Revolution of Our Times will not be available for screening in the city. Because Cannes is one of the most prominent film events in the world, the festival risks facing severe repercussions from the Chinese government. Individuals who participated in the filming process could be prosecuted as well.

Although this decision calls into question China's future role in the Cannes Film Festival, Chow has stated that "[His] only wish is for as many people as possible to see it."

Why are so many people moving away?

If you have been keeping up with Hong Kong-related news, you may have seen headlines about Kongkongers flocking to other countries like England, Canada and Australia. 

In terms of why so many people are leaving their homes, the Hong Kong displayed in Revolution of Our Times is no longer the Hong Kong that many parents, young professionals and youth loved growing up in. Some protestors and activists are leaving out of necessity after being charged for resisting governmental control, but others are choosing to move away in search of the liberties they once enjoyed.

Mainland China has rewritten the school curriculum in Hong Kong, promoting an increasingly nationalist classroom environment. This even means that school-aged children are being taught to report their parents if they hear sympathetic talk towards the pro-democracy movement. 

Hongkongers fear that the next generation will grow up never being able to express themselves freely and be conditioned to pledge unwavering devotion to the Chinese government. This is one big reason why people are leaving Hong Kong.

The people of Hong Kong are now scattered across the world in unfamiliar lands. In time, they will build new lives, and Hong Kong protests may no longer be among the headlines. When ten, twenty, thirty years pass, the memories of Hong Kong people will fade, but Revolution of Our Times will serve as proof of what they have been through and hold their stories forever.

With regards to his documentary being shown at the film festival, Chow said, "I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to Cannes. It is our honor to have the world premiere of Revolution of Our Times, a film documenting the struggle of HongKongers, at Cannes; and receive great attention. Hong Kong has been losing far more than anyone has expected, this good news will be a comfort to many HongKongers who live in fear; it also shows that whoever fights for justice and freedom around the world are with us. And HongKongers are staying strong."

GIF via Giphy | Images via @revolutionofourtimes.film, @nswhongkongers, @nicholasku_, @hkfis

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by Claire Hutto | 8/6/2021
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