Revolution of Our Times: key takeaways from Hong Kong protest documentary screened at the Cannes Film Festival
- Kiwi Chow’s film is shot from the perspective of the mainly young protesters whose increasingly violent demonstrations roiled Hong Kong in 2019
- There are scenes of them fleeing but little of them attacking police, some wrenching moments, insight into their tactics, and key events during the unrest
The late addition to the programme was offered to the festival at the eleventh hour. “We’re not playing a game with this surprise screening,” said festival artistic director Thierry Frémaux during his introduction. “We saw it, we loved it, and in accordance with Cannes’ long tradition of showing films about what’s happening in the world, we decided it was important to screen it.”
Earlier in the week, the festival had announced a “surprise documentary film” but held back its identity. This feeling of anonymity carried on into the film, which immediately reveals that some interviewees’ voices have been altered or facial features obscured to protect their identity.
In some cases, actors have been used to complete the film because the production “lost contact” with those featured on screen.
After a breakneck intro reminds viewers of the 1997 handover when Hong Kong was returned by the British to mainland China under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the film throws the viewer headfirst into the early days of the protests in June 2019.
This is a film very much shot from the front lines, from the perspective of the young protesters – who go by names like “Snake”, “Nobody”, “V. Boy” and “Tiger”.
One tells a wrenching story of he and his father passing in the street like strangers, no longer able even to acknowledge each other.
Chow’s film shows how these youngsters operate, connecting on the messaging app Telegram and running the protests with a hive mentality that sees each person take on a role suitable to their skill set.
Whether you’re on lookout duty, extinguishing tear gas pellets or blocking roads with bricks and barriers, everyone has a task. The mentality is compared by some to online gaming, where community and cooperation is required to succeed.
While it offers an unflinching look at the tactics used by the Hong Kong police to quell the protests, it does not pretend to be even-handed; we see little of the violent behaviour of protesters towards the police and others disagreeing with their actions on the streets.
The film methodically takes viewers through the tumultuous months of protest, showing the police deploying more advanced riot control equipment, footage of “Lennon Walls” that display thousands of coloured Post-it note messages expressing hope for a democratic Hong Kong, and a display of lights with the message “Free HK”. .
We also see “Uncle Chan”, the elderly farmer who initially is seen trying to peacefully disperse crowds, and proclaiming to police he has the right to monitor their actions.
“I don’t want to see our next generation destroyed by Carrie Lam,” he says, referring to the city’s chief executive.
If the film is sympathetic to the protesters even as they resorted to violence, it also shows that not every resident supports them.
One middle-aged British expat, who has been living in Hong Kong for 33 years, makes his feelings about the protesters known in no uncertain terms when he’s caught on camera. “You’re ruining Hong Kong,” he yells, explaining how the real estate market, the airlines and tourism are all being destroyed by the continuing protests.
Some of those trapped inside are seen escaping through the sewers. V. Boy is one of many who records his last will, in case he shouldn’t survive.
That didn’t stop the Cannes audience applauding enthusiastically throughout the credits.
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