Read, Debate: Engage.

"Stay calm, keep recording"

February 15, 2022
tags:#Kiwi Chow, #Revolution of Our Times, #Hong Kong, #freedom of expression, #film
by:Dawna Fung
Film director Kiwi Chow, a Hong Kong native, spoke to FairPlanet about his documentary Revolution of Our Times, which captured the 2019 protests and has helped fuel a wave of pro-democracy resistance in the former British colony. Despite the rapid erosion of freedoms in the city, Chow still believes there is a way out of the predicament.

After the national security law was implemented in June 2020, Hong Kong’s opposition has become nearly silent. But a documentary, Revolution of Our Times, that premiered in Cannes last year, featuring the city’s anti-extradition legislation protest in 2019, has astonished the world.

This film later won the Best Documentary at the 58th Golden Horse and the IMPACT Documentary Grand Prize at FIPADOC.

Some of the friends of the documentary's director, Kiwi Chow, have warned him that he could be arrested due to the film's sensitive topic and spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted.

Previously, an activist carrying a black flag with the iconic protest slogan ‘Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times’ while riding his motorbike into a group of policemen, became the first man ever to be convicted under the national security law for inciting secession and act of terrorism. The 24-year-old was sentenced to a total of nine years in prison.

After the film censorship law was implemented in November last year, screening movies with political messages has become nearly impossible, as the authorities have developed new tools through which to crush dissent.

Yet, Chow said he would not worry a lot about the film's title, as he did not want to be imprisoned by fear. In an interview with FairPlanet, he admitted that sometimes he feels anxious about the possibility of getting arrested, but remains resolute about his decision. "I have already decided to walk this path. My soul is free and I have peace within myself. Nothing should hinder me on the road to justice."

Tiananmen was a 'moment of enlightenment'

How did you get involved in politics and capture Hong Kongers’ anger over the central government in Self-immolator?

"I grew up in Hong Kong. Everything I face and experience in daily life involves politics. [The] authorities say we can separate politics from everyday life - that is a lie. Even if we do not mess with politics, politics will mess with us," the 42-year-old stressed. 

Chow called the 4 June Massacre his 'moment of enlightenment.' In that eventful year, 1989, when numerous demonstrations took place in China and Eastern Europe, Chow was only a nine-year-old schoolboy. He sat in front of the television and watched the live-streamed protests from day to night, until the troops and tanks entered Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and shot the unarmed protesters. "This was my childhood memory," he said sarcastically. 

He was young, but he was chilled by the cruelty of the Chinese government. Those images have been haunting him, but the student protesters fighting for democracy inspired him. "I was awakened. Suddenly, I realised that I was not merely a son or student, but also a citizen. I can participate in changing the world."

Since then, he has been concerned about the democracy development in Hong Kong, and marched with tens of thousands other citizens to fight for universal suffrage. "It was enshrined in the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration. A decorous promise between China and the United Kingdom. But it seemed that Hong Kongers have to ‘beg’ for it." 

Peaceful protesters filled the city’s streets every year, but full universal suffrage was never granted. "And for so many years, this lie, these unjust [...] lies made me sick. I had enough of it."

Ten YEars - a prophecy 

Anger and frustration had inspired Chow to write the story of the Self-immolator, one of the five vignettes of dystopian speculative film Ten Years, featuring a Hong Kong resident who supported Hong Kong Independence but ended up desperately pouring oil on herself and setting herself aflame.

Last year, a protester stabbed himself to death after attacking a police officer. He left a suicide note expressing discontent at the lack of freedom after the implementation of the national security law. 

"Heartbreaking," Chow said with a heavy sigh. "Ten Years is a prophecy, a prophecy that we do not wish to see. Unfortunately, some of the scenes happened in real life." He added that there were other people who committed suicide to protest. At least nine cases of suicide appeared to be linked to the demonstrations in only five months in 2019.

Public health experts have assessed that protesters, especially the younger ones, may not be mentally equipped to deal with the exposure to violence and might risk pushing themselves to extremes. According to Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong, the suicide rate has risen from 12.8 to 13.25 in 2019. "I was not encouraging people to kill themselves. My original idea of Self-Immoculator was to ask, how much could you sacrifice for this city? And these people have sacrificed their lives." 

The news was devastating and left people in tears. "It was the regime who forced them to jump off rooftops," Chow accused.

crying for Hong Kong 

As a film director, Chow chose to record people’s struggles through his lens in the thick of the 2019 mass protests, when millions of Hong Kongers took to the streets, opposing the proposed extradition legislation - which potentially could send citizens to China for trials - and repeatedly shouted the slogan ‘Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times’ with outrage. 

You said you had cried a lot throughout the editing process of Revolution of Our Times

"I still cry a lot because I do not want to feel numb. Sometimes when I am having dinner with my family and scrolling through news feeds on my phone, tears would roll down my cheeks if someone was arrested. Sometimes when I listen to worship songs, or sometimes it comes out of nowhere, and I’d cry cried." His seven-year-old son would pat him on the shoulder, "Papa, I know what you are crying for. You are crying for Hong Kong."

He recalled a moment from last week when he received a letter from his friend in prison. "He wrote that everything was fine in an optimistic tone. But I cried. After all, this is unjust, isn’t it? He was locked up as a political prisoner." 

Chow regarded crying as a way to assuage his fears and anxieties. He would feel better and regain his energy after allowing himself to indulge in sorrow for around 15 minutes. "I refuse to feel numb. That is why I cry."

What was the most unforgettable scene in ‘Revolution of Our Times’?

After a moment of silence, Chow gave a date, "29th of September, 2019." That afternoon, he was filming in Admiralty where police came from the side in an ambush. Chow reached out his hand and murmured, "I saw protesters, this close to me, being grabbed by the police and beaten up by truncheons." 

Chow was in the centre of the chaotic assault, though a reflective vest printed with the word ‘PRESS’ saved him. Inexplicably, his feet could not move an inch, the family camcorder in his hands held completely still. "I was so helpless. I had no idea what to do. It was so ineffable."

But Chow gradually got used to this kind of bloody confrontation. As a documentary filmmaker, he saw ‘staying calm, keep recording’ as his responsibility. With interviews and footage of the frontline protesters, the documentary made its debut at Cannes.

Why did you refuse to fly to Cannes when Revolution of Our Times premiered?

"I don’t know," Chow chuckled, "I really want to stay in Hong Kong. I want to experience this moment with my family here." He also interpreted this decision as an ‘attitude’, showing that he is deeply attached to his hometown.

When Revolution of Our Times won the Best Documentary at the 58th Golden Horse, Chow gave his acceptance speech through video. He said "To those who stay in Hong Kong, just like me, and to those who are in exile overseas, and those who are imprisoned, even if you do not have the chance to see it, I honestly hope, I pray to the Lord that the mere existence of this film can comfort everyone.” 

For him, it was far more crucial to raise awareness through the documentary than winning trophies. "Awards do not have many meanings. Art is not a competition."

Some people thought that it was very difficult to show support for the protests or even publicly discuss the pro-democracy movement. How would you describe the situation of freedom in Hong Kong now? 

"Very bad," Chow said without hesitation. He cited the cases of radio host Wan Yiu-sing and activist Tam Tak-chi, who were accused of breaking the national security law and sedition law for their speeches. "They did not do anything! They just said a few words that the government did not like!" Chow said, his arms outstretched and fingers splayed. 

To him, the approved amendments to the Film Censorship Ordinance to ban movies ‘contrary’ to national security were just an ‘extension’ of the national security law. "We do not have freedom of screenings now. But there was no big difference between the past and present. Hong Kong’s film industry has been greatly self-censoring itself. It just shifted to official censorship by the government," Chow said somberly.

Is there any hope?

Chow said, "I cannot see any hope in the future. But I know there will be. Faith is believing something you did not see with your eyes." As a Christian, he believes in hope even if there is not a shred of evidence that shows freedom can prevail in Hong Kong.

Chow is confident that Hong Kongers can walk out of this political predicament together, step by step. "Many people have been asking, where is the exit? Where is the way out? The only way out is our struggle and resistance."

Image by Leung Man Hei.

Article written by:
Dawna Fung
As a film director, Chow chose to record people’s struggles through his lens in the thick of the 2019 mass protests, when millions of Hong Kongers took to the streets, opposing the proposed extradition legislation.
© Leung Man Hei
As a film director, Chow chose to record people’s struggles through his lens in the thick of the 2019 mass protests, when millions of Hong Kongers took to the streets, opposing the proposed extradition legislation.
Revolution of Our Times is featuring the city’s anti-extradition legislation protest in 2019.
© Leung Man Hei
Revolution of Our Times is featuring the city’s anti-extradition legislation protest in 2019.
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