Joshua Wong on Hong Kong human rights, those CIA rumours, and his Sundance winner Teenager vs Superpower
Joe Piscatella’s documentary on the Hong Kong student activist premiered at the independent film festival, and Wong gave a speech the following day
Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung was not on stage when his new documentary film portrait, Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, won the audience award in the World Cinema Documentary category in Sundance on Saturday. But his presence had already been felt at the independent film festival in Park City, Utah.
“Thank you Sundance for giving us a venue to show this film about human rights violations going on halfway around the world in Hong Kong,” said the film’s American director, Joe Piscatella, on stage with British producer Matthew Torne.
“These films aren’t made without an amazing team and I need to thank my producer Matthew Torne, who not only had the wherewithal to discover our hero Joshua Wong in a park at age 13 rocking a mike and getting a crowd rolling, he also had the wherewithal to turn his camera on.”
At the awards after-party, Torne tells me: “I’m just really pleased that we made a film about kids leading a democracy movement, and that we were democratically elected for best film.”
Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower premiered on the second day of the festival – the day after Al Gore had given a rousing speech following the world premiere of the opening film, An Inconvenient Sequel. Interestingly Wong, now 20, did likewise the next day.
Watch: Director Joe Piscatella on his film
“We are involved in different causes but still have the same goal: democracy and human rights,” Wong says when he’s asked to compare himself to the former vice president and environmental activist at our interview session in Sundance.
There was less fanfare for Wong’s film at the out-of-town Temple Theatre which screens documentaries – and that was probably a good thing, considering that he was still reeling from being attacked alongside legislator Nathan Law Kwun-chung at Hong Kong International Airport two weeks earlier. Security was tight around him in Sundance and he even had a bodyguard in tow.
“My phone and email have been hacked, I’ve been arrested by the police and followed by the pro-China people or the photographers from the pro-China newspapers,” Wong explains. “It’s part of the price that we need to pay. But being physically assaulted is beyond our expectations.”
Wong admits he is determined to enter politics but is still too young. At the end of the film we watch as Law, 23, runs for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council supported by his fellow students and Demosisto party members Agnes Chow Ting, Derek Lam Shun-hin (who also attended the Sundance premiere) and Wong. Wong says the airport attack was a reprisal for Law’s surprise win.
Their story is set to find a much bigger global audience now that Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower has been snapped up in a reported low-seven-figure deal by video-streaming giant Netflix, which has 93 million members in 190 countries; and lauded by trade magazine Variety for being “the rare protest documentary that’s genuinely exciting as well as inspiring.”
Piscatella says the Netflix worldwide deal was about “impact and eyeballs”. “Netflix has the ability to bring the film to a lot of people – and especially a lot of people in Joshua’s age range, who I think are really going to respond to it.”
Wong says the positive response has exceeded his expectations. “I would admit that, at 78 minutes, this documentary cannot reflect the whole of the movement for six years – it didn’t include the rise and fall of localists – but I would say it targets the international community and I hope it can arouse people’s interest. It will be an introduction for them to learn about Hong Kong and also put pressure on the Chinese government.”
Wong believes that a film by a Hong Kong filmmaker wouldn’t have made it to Sundance. Ultimately Piscatella, the 42 year-old son of best-selling author Joseph C. Piscatella, was probably the right man for the job.
The filmmaker says he is above all a storyteller, but is also clearly politically inclined. Piscatella’s one previous feature, #chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator (2013), was “about a 19-year-old American teenager in Syria who helps run the Syrian revolution.” “I’m very attracted to stories about teenage revolutionaries, though I knew nothing about this situation,” he admits.
His experience in writing children’s films for Disney and other studios allows him to bring a commercial savvy and positive stance to Wong’s story.
“My last credit before #chicagoGirl was [for writing] Underdog (2007), a talking dog movie,” says Piscatella. “I’m a storyteller whether it’s a talking dog movie or Joshua. At the end of the day it’s about telling a great story in a three-act structure. ... Obviously this all really happened and you have to stay within the time frame, but this is ultimately a David and Goliath story.”
Starting out at the beginning of Wong’s activism in 2012, the film includes extensive television reports, interviews with scholars of the events (including SCMP.com blogger Jason Ng), and stunning drone shots of the 2014 civil disobedience movement Occupy Central. Above all the camera follows the passionate Wong, who comes across as a force of nature in the film.
Lessons in Dissent – the Joshua Wong documentary directed by Torne and released in Hong Kong in mid-2014 – proved a valuable resource, even if Piscatella notes, “it covered a very small aspect of our story, it was also in Cantonese and was made for a Hong Kong audience.”
The director believes that his new film is “inspirational”. “I was asked last night by a Hong Kong journalist: ‘The ‘umbrella movement’ failed, don’t you understand that?’ And I said, ‘You’re absolutely right. They did not achieve what they set out to achieve, but the fact that it happened at all is pretty inspiring’.”
As the subject of an award-winning documentary by an American filmmaker, Wong is relaxed enough to laugh off rumours of his involvement with the CIA. “Oh it’s quite funny,” he says with a chuckle. “I think even pro-China legislators would not believe I’m really a CIA agent.
“After my girlfriend read the newspaper where it said I’d been trained by the US marines, she wondered why my body size is still far from Tom Cruise or others. ‘Could you do more exercise?’ she asked,” Wong claps his hands and laughs at the memory.
It’s a rare moment of levity for the ever-serious Wong. “My holiday is this trip overseas – but with a full schedule.” He pauses pensively. “Being an activist is not easy.”
Wong intends to have another “holiday” to promote the film. “The critical time is the 20th anniversary of the British handover on July 1,” he says. “London, Washington DC and New York will be the target places, I hope. I will go and promote Hong Kong human rights.”
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