The new national anthem protection law, passed by the Legislative Council this month, has already cast a chilling shadow over creative activity in Hong Kong. A documentary on the Hong Kong protests has become the first casualty.
A political art segment in Evans Chan’s We Have Boots (2020) will be cut from the expanded two-hour new edition of the documentary, the director told HKFP in a telephone interview. The uncut film had its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Netherlands earlier this year.
The scene involves local performance artist Kacey Wong playing music from March of the Volunteers on the accordion during a protest march in 2018. Wong’s performance of The Patriot juxtaposes a portable jail cell on wheels with music from the Chinese and UK national anthems, as well as “Do you hear the people sing?” from the musical Les Misérables.
Offenders found guilty of deliberately altering or “insulting” the national anthem risk a fine of up to HK$50,000 or three years’ imprisonment under the new law.
“A person commits an offence if, with intent to insult the national anthem, the person intentionally publishes the insulting in any way of the national anthem,” the provision reads.
Chan said his film will not be altered for screenings outside Hong Kong. There are no plans to show it in mainland China.
This is not the first time Chan has run into such problems. An attempt to screen his 2016 documentary Raise the Umbrellas at the Asia Society’s Hong Kong Center was cancelled after the executive-director complained about the composition of the panel for a post-screening discussion.
Chan, who is based in New York, said he decided it was prudent to cut the scene from We Have Boots upon hearing legal advice given to a Hong Kong media outlet.
He said he believed the scene could be defined as “insulting” the national anthem under the new law: “I decided to delete it.”
Wong reportedly told Chan he was “okay” with the decision given that he was “making history.”
As for Beijing’s imminent promulgation of a national security law tailor-made for Hong Kong, Chan said he believes artistic creations like his films on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement could not in future be screened locally.
He said it was hard enough for independent films to be made in the first place, let alone distributed; the law would just create more obstacles. Additionally, he said he feared future archives of such work may have to be relocated outside Hong Kong.
Chan said We Have Boots was expanded from the preliminary version screened in 2018 to bring it up to date and include more interviews.
The added interviews are with key figures in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, such as University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai, retired Chinese University of Hong Kong sociologist Chan Kin-man, and pro-democracy lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun. They delve into the emotional impact of the movement and their preparedness for potential imprisonment.
“The irony is all these people who were advocating non-violent resistance got thrown in jail, and then it became a leaderless movement and… evolved in a different direction,” the director said.
The film also contains an interview with activist Ray Wong, who fled to Germany following his involvement in the 2016 Mong Kok unrest, documented in We Have Boots. It also features Umbrella Movement student leader Alex Chow, who talks about embracing Buddhism while incarcerated.
Demosisto’s Agnes Chow talks about her evolution from an apolitical Japanese anime fanatic to a dedicated activist facing challenges in her emerging political career. We Have Boots captures her speeches in Japanese, subtitled in English and Chinese.
In the film, Chan includes dramatic videos from last year’s Yuen Long mob attack on July 21 and Prince Edward MTR station police clearance on August 31.
Former Umbrella Movement student leader Tommy Cheung, now a district councillor in Yuen Long, is also interviewed in the film.
Chan said assaults against the general population marked a “turning point” in the movement last year because “everyone saw themselves potentially in [a] death situation.”
His next film project is tentatively titled Umbrella Road, which will mark the third in a trilogy of films. It will most likely be a simplified depiction of Hongkongers’ desired path to democratisation, he said.
The cut version of We Have Boots will be shown in Hong Kong next month, according to Chan. In the US, We Have Boots will be screened uncut for free from June 26 to July 3 via the Filmfest DC website.
Correction 26:6: A previous version of this article stated the Filmfest DC screening would start on June 29. It will, in fact, start on June 26.