Punched by police and shunned by cinemas, Occupy documentary maker still a believer

One punch shattered Chan Tze-woon’s illusions about the power of the camera and the probity of police, but he won’t stop making films and is hopeful a Hong Kong cinema chain will show his protest movie

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 April, 2016, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 April, 2016, 5:11pm

When he decided to take part in the 2014 “umbrella movement” in Hong Kong as a documentary filmmaker, Chan Tze-woon accepted that he might spend months wandering chaotic streets, clash with parents over political ideals, or risk arrest for civil disobedience. The last thing he expected was that he would be punched in the face by a policeman while sitting in a Mong Kok street, his video camera rolling in his lap.

“When we learn to be documentary film directors, we’re taught that people tend to restrain themselves in front of cameras,” says Chan. “So I felt a responsibility at the scene, where the police were arresting people with excessive force. But once I was punched, I was at once disillusioned about the power of the camera and totally disappointed with the police, who are supposed to uphold the law.”

He remained in the same spot while the policeman, realising he was being filmed, walked slowly away. After the incident, Chan seldom went near the front line of the Occupy Central protests again. “When you’re beaten by a cop, you can neither go after him nor, well, go to the police. There’s nothing you can do. I was quite timid – to sit there and watch the person who had just punched me go away,” he says.

Including the clip in his feature-length documentary about the protests, Yellowing, afforded Chan some relief. In spite of his experience, he remains a believer in peaceful, rational and non-violent protest. His film, shorn of politicians’ sound bites, reflects that sensibility, with its attempt to give voice to ordinary people.

Yellowing follows several protesters he coincidentally met on September 27, 2014, shortly after student leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung led a crowd to storm Civic Square in front of the Hong Kong central government complex. By doing so, the film depicts the movement as a lived, communal experience far more civilised than news headlines might have suggested.

“I wouldn’t pretend to be just a silent observer,” says Chan, who turns 29 next month. “I’m presenting this film as a participant in the movement. And the main protagonists of the documentary have now really become my friends; we went through the experience together.”

Chan, who has a bachelor’s degree in policy studies and administration from the City University of Hong Kong, and a master’s degree in film production from Hong Kong Baptist University, was on site for 60 of the 79 days the protests in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kong lasted, and shot 1,000 hours of footage. It took him and an editing colleague five months to make sense of the material and condense it to slightly more than two hours.

Since it premiered at the Hong Kong Independent Film Festival on January 31, Yellowing has been shown a few times at non-commercial venues. Two public screenings will take place on May 2 and 3 at the Hong Kong Science Museum.

Chan says he has encountered no political interference during venue booking for his documentary. “All we have to deal with is the usual bureaucracy stuff, like how you need to book a venue more than six months before a screening. So far, we’ve only been taking up the vacant slots that other event organisers have given up.”

Non-profit independent film distributor Ying E Chi has helped submit the film to international festivals and organise local screenings at public venues, but Chan’s hope for a limited release at a mainstream commercial cinema in Hong Kong looks decidedly forlorn.

“There’s been no news regarding a commercial release. The cinema circuits don’t need to give any reasons when they decide not to show a movie. But I’d still very much like to keep trying: it’d be good if Yellowing could be shown in a series of individual screenings, as Lessons in Dissent was,” he says of the documentary on activists Joshua Wong and Ma Wan-kei.

Still, Chan remains optimistic that his film will attract the interest of at least one commercial cinema chain after it is shown at festivals overseas, starting with its international premiere on May 8 as part of the Taiwan International Documentary Festival.

“Maybe we could have a little more bargaining power afterwards,” he says. “Following the success of Ten Years, independent productions on political subjects are getting more attention. I’m not worried that Yellowing will fail to find an audience. If one-tenth of the participants [in the protest movement] show an interest in this film, it’d already be an enormous number.”

It could be the idealism of an artist or the judicious posturing of a social activist, but Chan appears oblivious to the political considerations of the industry and the possibility its players will conspire to bury his film through sheer indifference. Ten Years was phased out of cinemas even though every screening was sold out.

“I do want this film to screen at a mainstream cinema, because the viewers it reaches will be very different,” Chan says. “It could then reach [ordinary] people, or maybe even the blue-ribbon factions. The current audience is limited to regulars of indie films, as well as those who actively seek out documentaries on the movement.”

Irrespective of the prospects for distribution of his first feature-length film, Chan is adamant he will continue to work as an independent filmmaker.

While Yellowing is a conventional documentary, Chan played with conspiracy theories in two earlier short “mockumentaries”. The Aqueous Truth (2013) imagined a tranquilliser had been added to Hong Kong’s water supply to pacify the population, while Being Rain: Representation and Will (2014) – inspired by the fact that the important dates for protests in 2014 were all affected by heavy rain – hypothesised that the authorities were controlling the weather to curtail civil unrest.

“Under the ‘one country, two systems’ concept, it once felt like the rulers couldn’t blatantly suppress civil development. That’s why they resorted to [the proposed] national education curriculum, a form of ideological indoctrination,” says Chan. “But conspiracy theories have become redundant as, since August 31, 2014, the central government’s interventions in Hong Kong affairs have become brazen,” he says, referring to Beijing’s announcement that candidates running in the chief executive election must be pre-screened.

He adds: “I’ll refrain from radical expression and continue to play a purely observational role in my films, which try to understand the political environment through the people. So while they’re always related to politics, I wouldn’t necessarily label them as political films.”

Yellowing will been screened on May 2 and 3 at the Hong Kong Science Museum Lecture Hall.