For the director of a mainland NGO organising a human rights film festival, it’s all about knowing where the line is with Chinese authorities – and not crossing it.

Beijinger Li Dan closed his Hong Kong bookstore selling publications banned on the mainland in March as sales plummeted after five Causeway Bay Books booksellers vanished. The disappearances were seen as a sign of Beijing’s tightening grip on Hong Kong and an erosion of human rights in the autonomous city. Meanwhile, on the mainland, human rights lawyers and activists are being detained as more stringent laws are imposed on foreign NGOs – all as part of a wide-reaching crackdown on civil society under President Xi Jinping.

1905 film festival

It is in this context that Li – who also runs a human rights education NGO in Beijing – decided to launch the 1905 Hong Kong Human Rights Film Festival. Launching on Saturday, the festival is set to become the first ever international human rights festival run by a mainland NGO.

Although it is held in Hong Kong and positions itself as an international festival, ultimately, Li has his sights set on a Chinese audience. Li told HKFP that the goal of the film festival is to promote human rights education in the mainland and to make discussion of human rights go mainstream through the visual medium of film.

With this view in mind, he invited mainland directors and producers to have their films shown at the festival, but many refused. One overseas producer who had originally agreed to show his movie pulled out after realising that it was a human rights film festival held in Hong Kong.

“He said it’s different if it’s about human rights in Hong Kong, because it’s too close to China,” Li said. The producer told Li that participation would take on a different meaning in that context – that it would be like criticising China.

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Li Dan (second from right) speaking at an event. Photo: Li Dan.

But Li has no intention of criticising the Chinese government.

He learned from his work as an HIV/AIDS activist to operate in the grey area where you can promote human rights in a way that does not offend the authorities.

“The government knows that – for the majority of NGOs – if they use them well, NGOs can help them solve problems, and aren’t necessarily opposed to the government.”

In recent years, “the space for NGOs has actually grown bigger,” he said. “So we think there is actually a space for human rights education in China now.”

There are some rules of thumb that Li goes by – such as not criticising the government – but it took a nuanced understanding of where the authorities draw the often-shifting invisible line to pull off the film festival.

1905 film festival
A talk entitled “Filmmaking as an intervention for world politics” with Ondřej Kamenický before the festival launch. Photos: Li Dan.

“The police on the mainland asked for the list of films we would be showing, but because we know that we are mainlanders and so it would be very easy for the police to shut us down – we’ve paid attention to this in choosing our films.”

The festival’s team avoided subjects such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement and the Falun Gong, but this is not to say that they have excluded all sensitive subjects.

One film, Pawo, is a fictional drama loosely based on the story of a young Tibetan who self-immolated for the freedom of Tibet in 2012 and explores what it means to be a Tibetan living in China. Li originally wanted screen a documentary about Tibet, but decided in the end that a fictional drama would be much less likely to draw the ire of the authorities. Another film Hooligan Sparrow, a documentary following a Chinese activist and about state censorship itself, was only able to be completed because the director smuggled the footage out of the country.

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Two other Chinese films – Lotus and A Young Patriot – were made by mainland directors and explores shifting identities and the questioning of society in modern China through the story of a female journalist and a patriotic young man. Li also considered showing the dystopian hit Ten Years, but changed his mind after discovering that most people in Hong Kong had already seen it.

Although China is part of the UN Human Rights Council and says it is dedicated to improving human rights, Li said discussion of the topic is not a mainstream thing like it is in the west, where celebrities promote the concept and there is a high degree of awareness. Li said this is mainly due to two reasons.

“Because China is developing so quickly, no one has time to look back at these basic problems.” They are too busy moving forwards and improving their material conditions, he said. “Secondly, everyone knows that there are some lines that you can’t touch… so they treat human rights as an absolute taboo.”

a young patriot
A Young Patriot. Photo: Facebook.

Almost no one is working on human rights education in the mainland in the sense of facilitating discussion of social issues, Li said. And that is the gap that he hopes to fill through film. He chose to hold the festival in Hong Kong because he believes that information about the film festival will eventually permeate the mainland border. It is the millions of visitors from the mainland every year that he hopes to attract eventually, as well as spreading the message through media reports. Li managed to get sponsorship from the consulates of Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands this year, and aims to make it an annual event.

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See also: ‘Corruption has no limit’: Hooligan Sparrow – the film China doesn’t want you to see

He also hopes the festival’s opening film, Our School – a documentary on the segregation of Roma-Gypsy children in education – will inspire Hong Kong people to think about local issues such as social injustices and discrimination that happen everyday but are invisible to the majority of the population.

“It’s not the case that the only human rights activists are the ones who resist the Chinese government and the ones want independence. There are many unjust issues around you – only if you see them and take action are you truly a human rights activist.”

The 1905 Film Festival runs from December 10-19. HKFP is a media sponsor. 

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catherine lai

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.