Wong Fei-pang could have introduced an untold story about Hong Kong urban life to a Beijing audience through his directorial debut last Saturday.
But the police crackdown on China’s largest independent film festival not only ruined the opportunity, it also filled him with fear of what might happen in Hong Kong one day.
“They could shut down the festival, snatch your property and beat you up in broad daylight without explaining anything to you,” the 23-year-old independent director told the South China Morning Post.
“It was suppression of freedom of speech and creative freedom. Will this happen in Hong Kong? It might. It is already on its way.”
Wong was referring to the Beijing Independent Film Festival, which was shut down by Chinese authorities on Saturday, shocking the international film world.
Heads of some of the world’s leading film festivals and organisations – including the Berlinale, Rotterdam and New York festivals – petitioned mainland authorities this week condemning their decision to shut down the Beijing festival and confiscate its archives.
Wang Hongwei, the festival’s artistic director, said this year’s festival has been suspended. “I’m not sure about the future,” he told the Post, refusing to elaborate further.
Wong’s film, An Odd Fish, a drama revolving around a young man with Asperger syndrome dealing with Hong Kong urban life, was one of the festival’s opening films.
Organiser Li Xianting told media that he and the office of the Li Xianting Film Fund, which he founded, had been under police surveillance since August 18. On the eve of the opening that was free for the public, Wong received a call from the organisers.
“I was told my film wouldn’t be shown,” the graduate of City University’s school of creative media said.
But he still went to the event’s opening in the Beijing suburb of Songzhuang, where Li’s film fund, the sponsoring organisation, was based.
He arrived at about 3pm.
“We saw the venue’s entrance being blocked by a lot of men. Around a dozen [private] cars and some police cars blocked the alleyways. The men were muscular, dressed like scruffy factory workers. They did not look very friendly,” Wong recalled.
Besides shutting down the festival, the authorities confiscated the festival’s archive, documents and computer hard disks. Organisers Li, Wang and Fan Rong were detained but released hours later.
The men outside did not introduce themselves but Wong said he had a clue.
“They were eating their lunch boxes inside cars in 30 degrees Celsius [heat] monitoring what was going on. They were obviously on a job. I wouldn’t believe they were not from China’s national security team.”
About 20 audience members – including artists, Westerners and journalists living in Beijing – held out their smartphones to capture the scene.
“They started pushing people around. A man snatched a smartphone from one of us. I was stunned. They told us that if we continue taking pictures and filming, they will snatch all our phones,” Wong said.
Associated Press said the men broke a video camera of one of its journalist and took away a mobile phone, which was returned later.
“We were so helpless. They could do whatever they wanted. They told us to leave by 6pm otherwise something bad would happen,” Wong said.
The crowd had cleared by 6pm.
It was not the first time the film festival had been harassed by the authorities, Wong said.
But Saturday’s incident was the most serious as a lot of important material was taken away “to strike a severe blow to the organisers”.
Wong said he travelled to the mainland from time to time but he never expected such a blatant attack on independent cultural workers. He agreed that Beijing was imposing a tighter grip on freedom of speech and ideology.
“The authorities simply do not want people to have their own independent narratives. They do not want such an independent force to grow.”
Wong said independent cinema, as opposed to movies produced in the mainstream industry, was free from institutional control and conformity to the “system”.
He felt that Hong Kong’s political atmosphere and increasing self-censorship was already putting creative freedom at stake and said the attacks on free speech in the mainland would one day be replicated in Hong Kong.
But he said he would fight on and hoped to introduce independent films to a wider audience.
“We must not let self-censorship get in the way,” Wong said. “If independent cinema disappears, it means we will lose our freedom to create and imagine.”