Cannes Film Festival Risking China’s Ire to Present Hong Kong Protest Documentary


The Cannes Film Festival plans to screen a controversial new documentary on the pro-democracy unrest in Hong Kong in 2019 on Friday, wooing another film industry clash with Beijing even as the industry remains heavily dependent on China for success in the country. box office.

Cannes kept its decision to show “The Revolution of Our Time” a secret until the last minute. The film, directed by Kiwi Chow, 42, from Hong Kong, follows seven characters through the sometimes violent protests against Chinese authority that have rocked the city. It ends with Beijing’s imposition of a national security law last year to silence dissent.

Earlier this year, Beijing censored Chinese director Chloe Zhao’s Oscar after old comments she had made criticizing the country resurfaced. Separately, Hong Kong, which recently extended the powers of its film censors to cover national security concerns, did not air the Oscars for the first time in decades after a documentary by a Norwegian director on the protests in the city was nominated for an award. Even the title of Mr. Chow’s film – the second half of the popular protest slogan “Free Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Time” – could irritate Beijing and the Hong Kong government, which has called the slogan subversive.

Mr Chow said he had worked largely in secret on the project for two years in an effort to avoid controversy that could derail his efforts. Throughout the process, friends urged him to leave Hong Kong, remove his name from the project, or at least change the title. He decided against it all.

“I really don’t want to lose in the face of this fear,” Mr. Chow said.

After the new censorship rules were released last month, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s top official, said the changes were needed because the city’s film inspectors previously had no notion of national security.

“Some of these individual rights and freedoms must be restricted by law in order to have a civilized society,” said Ms. Lam. “Is it so easy to walk these red lines and stifle free speech in Hong Kong’s creative industry?” I firmly believe not.

The filming of the documentary took Mr. Chow to the heart of the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong. He has followed characters ranging from staunch frontline protesters to peaceful supporters of the movement for months of action. The 2.5-hour film begins with a pivotal protest in mid-June 2019 and delves into the fiery occupation and multi-day police siege of a university, where Mr Chow spent three days and two nights asleep. on the floor of one of the occupied buildings. .

He said he was soaked in water containing chemical irritants from a water cannon and had taken at least one rubber bullet in his helmet. Long sessions in the editing bay drained him emotionally.

“There were times when I cried so much that I had to stop editing,” said Chow, speaking in his office in an industrial building in Hong Kong on June 30, 2021, the day after the mailing was sent. final editing of his documentary in Cannes. “I had nightmares about being chased, arrested and beaten by the police. “

“Revolution of Our Times,” a 2.5-hour documentary on pro-democracy unrest in Hong Kong in 2019, will be screened at the 74th Cannes Film Festival on Friday.


gonzalo fuentes / Reuters

Mr. Chow accepts that his film will never be shown in Hong Kong. Months after production began, Beijing introduced a sweeping national security law under which local authorities interpreted certain speeches as criminal for advocating secession or subversion of state power.

The city’s pro-democracy newspaper has shut down and several of its top executives and editors have been arrested, with police citing dozens of articles as evidence of a plot to collude with foreign powers . The government said these actions were aimed at defending national security and had nothing to do with press freedom.

Hong Kong cinemas recently canceled a screening of a documentary on the pitched battles on a campus during the 2019 protests and one on the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan.

These political pressures have added to the commercial pressures that have long plagued Hong Kong’s vibrant film industry, which at its peak produced global stars such as Jackie Chan as well as famous directors like Wong Kar-wai and Johnnie. To. Some independent films on city politics have managed to flourish in recent years, but critics say the remaining space for free voices in theaters is quickly disappearing.

Mr. Chow is known in Hong Kong as one of the directors of a dystopian anthology of five short films titled “Ten Years,” which won the Best Picture Award at the City’s Top Cinema Awards. Released in 2015, the package envisioned what Hong Kong would be like in 2025 after a decade of further encroachment from Beijing.

At the time, some viewers felt that the films overstated the pace of the crackdown in China. But they also predicted some of the trouble. In one of five short films, titled “Self-Immolator”, directed by Mr. Chow, Hong Kong is rocked by independence riots in a 2020 fiction.

Mr Chow said he was keen to document the latest pro-democracy protests, but initially felt shy about going to the front lines. Out of the blue, a businessman who had seen “Ten Years” called him up and offered to support a high-quality documentary that would help Hong Kong tell its story to the world. Mr. Chow bought a handheld camera and started filming.

His collaborators on the film, including editors and photographers, have since withheld their names or stopped working with him. But he insisted on attaching his own name to the film publicly, he said, to fight self-censorship and to signal that the film should be legal under the protection of free speech.

Mr. Chow submitted a first draft of the film to Cannes this spring. After learning he would be getting a special screening, he prepared for the fallout and, as a precaution, sent all of his footage out of Hong Kong. He said a major investor in a new movie he’s gearing up for has already withdrawn his money, fearing any association with him will attract unwanted scrutiny.

The filmmaker said he tried to allay concerns about what he could and couldn’t say in order to stay true to his vision.

“I don’t want to speculate where the red line is,” he said. “Only then can I be free.”

The red carpet at the main entrance to the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, southern France.


john macdougall / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Write to John Lyons at and Elaine Yu at

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