On Sunday August 20, a group quietly raised HK$10,010 for 13 protesters jailed earlier that week for participating in 2014 protests against the controversial northeast New Territories development plans.

But unlike thousands of others, they were not out on the streets marching and chanting slogans; rather, they were screening “Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above” in a darkened room at a primary school in Wong Tai Sin.

The documentary is a study of the effects of urbanisation on the environment, told through stunning birds-eye view shots of the island nation. The screening was followed by a discussion session with two architectural and landscape experts: ousted lawmaker Edward Yiu Chung-yim and Franciscan House’s Brother William Ng.

“We will hold the event as planned, but we hope that everyone will head to the protest after the screening and show your support towards the political prisoners,” the group said on Facebook. It added a hashtag: “We understand if you can’t make it.”

hk community cinema
Yiu and Ng speaking at an event. Photo provided by interviewees.

This is HK Community Cinema, a group of six young people from diverse backgrounds – social activism, community work, film and design industry – who have come together over several common goals. They aim to give local audiences a chance to view independent films, to raise awareness of social issues through post-screening discussions, and to take back public spaces.

HK Community Cinema is the brainchild of activist Yip Po-lam, a long-time participant of social movements, such as the fight to preserve Queen’s Pier in 2007. The project was launched in May last year, just after a series of public screenings for dystopian indie film “Ten Years” were held in venues across Hong Kong.

“There’s not really any evidence to show that you can’t screen political films in Hong Kong,” said Cheung King-fai, a HK Community Cinema team member who works in the film industry.

“But if films such as ‘Ten Years’ and ‘Yellowing’ [a documentary on the 2014 Occupy protests] are swept aside in mainstream cinemas and they’re not being shown despite how overwhelming popular they are, we want to make films that are more difficult to come by available for Hong Kongers.”

Filling this gap was especially important in the current political climate, where rumours of works being censored for being political are increasingly common. “I think there’s a problem now that a lot of people feel like there’s a taboo, and they set a line for themselves not to cross,” Cheung said.

“When there’s self-censorship, [the authorities] don’t need to do anything and everyone’s already behaving. Over the past five or six years, this line is present in the film, culture and literature industry.”

hk community cinema
Photo provided by interviewees.

But it was not entirely accurate to say that the group was fighting these instances of self-censorship; rather, they are driven simply by a desire to make community screenings of independent films a regular happening.

“In Hong Kong, there’ll be ten different cinemas and they’ll all be showing the same films,” said Cheung, adding that the local audience has a perception that independent films are only on view during film festivals. “We want to do something regular, just to let people know that there’s a lot of good works and directors out there.”

Another member, Judy Chan, agreed, adding that she hoped the group can expand the idea of film screenings, making it so popular that more members of the public will hold such events themselves.

Even more ambitiously, she envisions disrupting the art form altogether: “You can even stop in the middle of the film, and chat a bit – there’s a lot of methods to go about it.”

Meanwhile, designer and HK Community Cinema member Siu Ding wished to challenge the idea that indie culture only served or targeted towards artist-types, a prevalent perception here – unlike overseas where it was more popular.

Before this project, Siu Ding had been the organiser of an annual June Fourth film screening at a local bookstore. Having gone from holding one event once a year to a group of 20 people to now organising several-times-a-month screenings for hundreds of people, Siu Ding was optimistic about the future of community screenings.

“You need to immerse it bit by bit into their everyday life. This culture is developing, but it still takes time.”

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(From left to right) Yip Po-lam,  Siu Ding, Cheung King-fai, Judy Chan. Other members (not shown) include Ray Wong and Vincent Chui.
Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

After some internal debate over the balance between utilising outdoor public space and ensuring the quality of screenings, they decided on monthly screenings at three different indoor venues, in addition to guerrilla showings outdoors.

So far, they have organised 40 to 50 showings, screening films ranging from earlier works by now-renowned local directors – such as the trio behind “Trivisa” – to overseas indies and documentaries, such as German film “We Are Young. We Are Strong.”

Responses ranged from less-than-lukewarm – with around just six attending –  to a full house of up to 200 audience members.

The screenings are almost always followed by discussion sessions with directors, politicians or relevant organisations on a topic related to the film. “Otherwise, there’s not much of a difference with watching it at home by yourself,” Siu Ding said.

These discussions are a way for the group to raise awareness of social and political issues amongst the cinema-goers. For example, lawmaker Fernando Cheung was invited to speak about Hong Kong’s care home abuses after a screening of “Silenced” – a Korean film about physical and sexual abuse at a school for hearing impaired children, based on a true story.

“We have more flexibility than a cinema, because there’s no commercial pressure to limit how we operate,” Cheung said. “By covering topics such as Choi Yuen village, China’s human rights, social movements and food issues, June Fourth through screenings… it’s a way of telling people to pay attention to what’s happening in society.

“We don’t have to have a phobia towards politics and stay away from the topic completely just because we’re doing film here.”

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Photo provided by interviewees.

The donation towards the 13 jailed activists was not a one-off occurrence. HK Community Cinema has also raised over HK$30,000 for the Justice Defence Fund, which was established to assist the disqualified lawmakers.

“Ten Years” and “Yellowing” were screened for the cause, and ousted lawmakers Lai Siu-lai and Leung Kwok-hung attended the two showings respectively. But despite this, the group said that the focus of their work was not intended to be political.

“We want to make it more about the community than politics,” Siu Ding said. “Sometimes we look like we’re associated with politics, but life itself has a relationship with politics – we want everyone to have that awareness…

“There are 100 or so political prisoners now, and I think you really can’t separate society, politics, and the individual anymore. A colleague of mine once commented, ‘Maybe in the future we’ll all need to visit our loved ones or friends in prison.’”

The group’s seemingly warm relationship with the pro-democracy camp has led to trouble before: during the screening with Lau Siu-lai, a reporter from pro-Beijing paper Wenweipo went undercover and attended as a member of the audience, the group speculated, leading to a report on how they were “illegally” raising money and accusing Lau of being an “imposter” lawmaker.

hk community cinema
Photo provided by interviewees.

But there may be greater dangers lurking down the road that could threaten their existence. “We don’t apply for permission for outdoor screenings, which is usually needed for gatherings of over 50 people. Because of the nature of the event, we will probably even need an entertainment licence,” Yip admitted.

“We don’t believe that one needs to apply to hold activities in a public space. So far, [the authorities] haven’t yet exercised their powers to the absolute limit yet – for now, we’ll keep doing it, with our screens and projectors.”

The group said they “try to keep a low profile,” adding that have never received complaints from neighbours, and always ensure that they go the whole way with obtaining copyright permission.

Because of the grassroots nature of their operations, while they have no official funding or income, their operating costs are also minimal – especially since the venues and local indie directors are supportive. This means that the biggest cost is merely time, and the group is unfazed by questions of sustainability.

“So long as there are still directors and films, and we’re all still here, we can keep doing this,” Cheung said.

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Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.