Norwegian director Anders Hammer did not set out to make another war film when he traveled to Hong Kong in 2019 to document the political protests that had brought an estimated two million people to the streets of self-proclaimed Asia’s World City.
Hammer has previously chronicled real, hot war situations in Kabul and Iraq. There, bullets and rockets were flying daily, and more lives were in imminent danger. But “Do Not Split,” his 35-minute documentary from the front lines of Hong Kong, is no less a chronicle of war.
It is packed with close-quarters action — smoke bombs, pincer movements, anger and chaos -– as well as strange moments of calm in which protestors talk to the camera and explain their motivations. Then it plunges back into action — symbols being torn down, politicians holding stage, police presence getting heavy, real moments of a civil war.
Visceral, up-close and personal, “Do Not Split” has got a reaction. It has earned a third Oscar nomination for Field of Vision, a specialist documentary production house. That nomination in turn has fired up mainland Chinese authorities, who have ordered local media not to carry the Oscars ceremony live and to play down the event.
That’s a sad and self-defeating outcome in the year that Chinese-born Chloe Zhao looks to be an Oscar front-runner with “Nomadland” and that mainland-set youth drama “Better Days” has earned Hong Kong its first foreign film nomination since the end of British rule in the territory more than 23 years ago.
“When the protests broke out in June 2019, I was in South Korea and Taiwan, and there was a lot of talk about China’s expansion. Since I was close by, I was curious to see how it would play out,” says Hammer. When he got to the city, he was blown away by the scale and strength of feelings at play.
“I was totally fascinated by what I saw and felt it was one of the most important events in international politics,” says Hammer.
“If I was to make a movie, it should be something very, very close. Intimate. Where I get as close as possible with the camera to film in a way that I have been experimenting with in other places,” he says. Initially, he tried to shoot on a mobile phone, but gave that up, collected his full gear from his home in Oslo and returned to film guerilla-style for 140 days.
“The [protests] took different forms. From quite radical to very peaceful, more like a festival atmosphere. I wanted to include them all in the movie, but at the same time we always knew that we were working for the short format, so we had to take some tough choices and edit,” says Hammer.
The film compresses nearly five months into 35 minutes and chronicles only what Hammer himself observed, without using outside footage to depict earlier events such as the massive June 2019 marches and the subsequent storming of the Legislative Council building, an event that in hindsight looks to have been a turning point in Beijing’s attitude to the city and its people.
Hammer says that his initial intent was to try to tell both sides of the story: pro-democracy outcry and the pro-establishment position. But both police and pro-Beijing demonstrators were wary of media.
“In the beginning I was able to be quite close to the police. They didn’t want to do formal interviews, but I could stand behind them sometimes,” says Hammer. “During the autumn it got more intense and the police got more proactive and aggressive in how they confronted us as reporters. They would knock into us on purpose, and would verbally abuse us, sometimes make threats.”
“With the pro-China supporters I really tried. But it was much more difficult because they were so skeptical towards the reporters,” Hammer says. In the end, he says he “found it more easy and also interesting in the sense that I had to pick an angle for a short period.”
“I really believe in journalism and I believe we can mix traditional filmmaking and journalism when I am collaborating with Field of Vision,” he says.
Getting the footage he wanted meant Hammer was tear-gassed, hit by gas canisters and by rubber bullets. “It was more of a technical challenge than a great personal trauma,” and not as physically threatening as his time in Kirkuk, Iraq.
“Everyone around me was experiencing the trauma of their lives. [My job was] to be very close to people who were in a very desperate situation.”
Earlier footage played at Sundance in January 2020. Hammer envisages possible long-form packages after the Oscars, and after he finishes a documentary series on investigative journalism for Norwegian public TV. The fast-developing political situation in China is likely to keep the story relevant.
“[‘Do Not Split’] is a movie about how basic democratic rights are challenged and are disappearing in Hong Kong. So [Beijing’s reaction to the Oscar nomination] is just in line with the story that we are covering in the movie. From how I see they deal with freedom of expression issues in general, unfortunately it’s not a surprise.”