Leadership can be acquired or be innate, but sometimes it emerges as a phenomenon that could hardly be stopped if the individual tried — although displeased authorities may try hard to. “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower” charts the public career to date of a Hong Kong student who, at age 13, started agitating against the intrusion of policies from mainland China, and has turned into an iconic advocate for democracy. The rare protest documentary that’s genuinely exciting as well as inspiring, Joe Piscatella’s sophomore feature should appeal to distributors and viewers around the globe (albeit not in China). Netflix picked up the doc at Sundance.
The director’s prior feature, 2013’s “#chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator,” was also about an outwardly ordinary teenager assuming an extraordinary role in political action — in that case a U.S. college freshman coordinating revolutionaries in Syria online. By contrast, rail-thin, bespectacled Joshua Wong lives smack in the middle of the place whose liberty he champions. He wasn’t yet born when Hong Kong was handed over to China after 150 years as a British colony. Sensing great citizen trepidation, the Communist mainland government promised much autonomy to the Hong Kong population for half a century, hoping to stop the mass emigration of those best-and-brightest who ensure the territory’s robust economy.
But the extent to which they’d honor this “one country, two systems” principle began to be doubted, particularly when, in 2012, China sought to implement a National Education curriculum, combating “unpatriotic thoughts” in youth. To the amazement of his supportive but not particularly political parents, Wong not only took great offense at this institutionalized propaganda, he created his own activist group to battle it.
Co-founded with other students — though all acknowledge Wong as the primary architect and engine — the organization, Scholarism, was as grassroots as they come. It soon had kids leafleting passersby. Wong himself confronted CY Leung, HK’s chief executive, whose obvious subservience to Beijing was to many a clear signal of Hong Kong’s diminishing control over its own destiny. Leung’s polite brushoff of pleas to halt implementation of the “brainwashing program” only heightened students’ resolve. Eventually they staged a sit-in strike whose shockingly high visibility and turnout achieved the impossible: It forced Beijing to back down on policy.
This victory put Wong & co. in a position to play a significant role in law professor Benny Tai’s subsequent Occupy Central movement for universal suffrage. This more serious threat to mainland authorities’ power, which again won a huge groundswell of public support, provoked harsher responses. At one point Wong, among others, was roughed up, arrested, and questioned by police. The “disappearances” of some other pro-democracy activists, presumably kidnapped by Beijing, underline the dangers of the ongoing struggle. At the close of “Teenager vs. Superpower,” Wong and comrades sorrowfully dismantle Scholarism. But that’s simply because they’re now adults, and must move on — by creating a new political party, Demosistō, in which they’ve continued fighting for Hong Kong autonomy by running candidates for public office.
Though he may look the gawky man-child, Wong is — much like the subject of another 2017 Sundance doc premiere, Dolores Huerta — a tirelessly driven organizer and strategist whose extreme focus can keep even close colleagues at a distance. (Simultaneously awed and intimidated, one calls him a “robot.”) While he’s certainly still young enough to go through unforeseen changes, one suspects he’ll always be focused on the greater public good, to the likely detriment of his private life. His ability to easily address large crowds from such a young age is downright eerie at times.
That said, Wong is a disarming subject, as are his fellow principal activists here. Mixing news, social media, and original footage, and video from participants’ cellphones, Piscatella and editor Matthew Sultan have shaped the kind of exciting you-are-there narrative that captures the feeling of underdog “naive” idealism transforming into a game-changing popular movement. Wherever adults talk to kids about “making a difference,” this documentary should be shown.