In a late move, the Cannes Film Festival has announced the addition of a new film to its official line-up. The documentary, “Revolution of Our Times,” depicts recent political and social events in Hong Kong, and will play on Friday in a special screening.
Cannes this year is chock full of issue-led programming about climate change, crises in Africa, diversity and equality. Few topics are as pressing or complex as the ideological clash between the liberal west and China’s modern brand of Communist-badged totalitarianism.
The front line in this undeclared war is Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese control 24 years ago. While the territory was supposed to have been given a “high degree of autonomy” for a period of 50 years, and to have operated under the “one country-two systems principle,” the last few years have seen China’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” introduced and enforced in uncompromising fashion.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement dug in its heels in 2014 but was defeated by a patient territory government that seemed to be playing a long game. When dissent spiked again in 2019, protests were met with an iron fist — despite the kind of popular support that brought two million people, nearly 30% of the city’s population, onto the streets exactly two years ago.
“Revolution of Our Times” is not the first documentary to chronicle the protests in Hong Kong and the brutal police crackdown. Among its forerunners was Anders Hammer’s visceral 35-minute “Do Not Split,” which was nominated for a short-form documentary Oscar this year. Instead, “Revolution” may be the most painstaking and detailed yet.
Made by Kiwi Chow, who was previously one of the five directors of ominously forward looking 2015 film “Ten Years,” “Revolution of Our Times” carefully starts by setting the historical scene, the 1986 breakthrough under which Britain and China agreed on the terms of Hong Kong’s return.
It then fast-forwards to the events of July 2019 when the Hong Kong government proposed the introduction of an extradition bill between the special administrative region and the mainland.
Seemingly innocuous, the legislation effectively dissolved the legal barriers between two incompatible legal systems and exposed citizens and companies that had deliberately chosen to live and operate outside mainland jurisdiction to Communist law-making and judicial decisions.
The popular mass reaction killed off that particular piece of legislation, but when it became clear that the Hong Kong government was being pushed by Beijing into other actions, the protests became violent.
“Revolution of Our Times” then chronicles in graphic detail the subsequent months of troubles: the storming of the Legislative Council; alleged collusion between police and organized crime; a protestpr’s suicide; the militarization of the police; and the “be like water” spirit that saw the protests constantly change shape and flow in new directions.
“I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to Cannes. It is our honor to have the world premiere of ‘Revolution of our Times’ Hong Kong has been losing far more than anyone has expected. This good news will be a comfort to many HongKongers who live in fear; it also shows that whoever fights for justice and freedom around the world, are with us! And HongKongers are staying strong!,” said Chow in an emailed statement.
The film moves on to include the introduction, in July 2020, of the National Security Law, which manages to be both vague and draconian.
In its first year of effect, the NSL has been used to rewrite textbooks, the education syllabus and election rules. It is currently being extended to cover the media and entertainment sectors, and has caused the closure of the Apple Daily pro-democracy newspaper.
The NSL makes the slogan “Revolution of our times” illegal in Hong Kong. And the same will almost certainly go for the film, too.
Cannes is taking a significant gamble in giving the film the red carpet treatment. At minimum, the festival risks a diplomatic complaint from mainland Chinese and Hong Kong authorities. China was previously so enraged by the Academy of Motion Pictures’ nomination of “Do Not Split” that the Chinese broadcast of the Oscars ceremony was canceled and media were ordered to downplay the event.
It is likely that Cannes organizers have anticipated a negative reaction.
They’ve chosen to play “Revolution of Our Times” at the end of the festival, when the trio of mainland Chinese films have already played and can’t be withdrawn in protest. But there’s now a risk that China will boycott future editions of Cannes, just as it is punishing the Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan for the island’s go-it-alone tendencies.
One explanation for the inclusion of the film may lie in Cannes programmers Thierry Fremaux and Christian Jeune’s visit to Hong Kong during the protests. Walking through the battlefield of the streets, they became eye-witnesses to a painful but cinematic civil war.