The University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) management has issued a warning to its student union, urging it to axe a screening of Lost in the Fumes, a documentary about jailed pro-independence activist and alumnus Edward Leung.

The documentary’s director Nora Lam, also an HKU graduate, told HKFP on Tuesday that she would be “extremely disappointed,” if the screening could not go ahead, whilst the union has pledged to proceed despite warnings.

lost in fumes edward leung
The poster for documentary Lost in Fumes. Photo: Internet.

HKU’s Student Union (HKUSU) had planned on screening the film in early February, but staff from the university contacted the union’s committee to discuss “possibly illegal” issues over the film’s screening. Citing union Vice-President Tracy Cheung and other sources, the union’s Campus TV reported on Tuesday that the university indicated that security guards may be deployed to block the screening, if it were to go ahead.

Lam, the director, said that during her time at HKU, she had “plenty of opportunities to be exposed to a wide selection of controversial films, in classroom or at other campus activities… They had taught me a lot about the world. It would sadden me a great deal if current and future students would be deprived of such [an] opportunity by the university, in fear of the new national security law.”

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Nora Lam. Photo: Nora Lam via Facebook.

The union also received an informal document from the school, saying it was offering the “strongest possible pieces of advice” and asked students to seek legal advice and mitigate risks, since the screening would generate “serious legal concerns and consequences,” the document read.

The nine-page document contained a series of screenshots taken from the documentary, such as when Leung discussed his beliefs about using force against the authorities, and dialogue that included the phrase “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.”

The slogan – initially used by independence activists – became much more popular during protests against the China extradition bill in 2019. The government said last year that it was illegal under the Beijing-imposed national security law, though no films have been banned in Hong Kong.

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The screenshots also included a scene showing Leung on stage during his campaign for the 2016 Legislative Council elections, where a stage backdrop was printed with the words “Hong Kong Independence” in Chinese.

Wording that appears in the documentary or “ethos expressed” in it will invite “undesirable attention of opposition party and law enforcement agencies,” the document said. Its screening “will expose HKUSU, the organiser, to extremely high risk… What it takes is one person reporting to police and/or NSL [National Security Law] unit.”

The document also suggested additional meetings with student representatives.

“Lost in Fumes” screenshots included in the document given to the HKU student union.Photo: HKU Document.

“[The] University urges HKUSU to seriously reconsider holding the screening on campus in the light of public safety concerns and the potential legal consequences,” the statement read, adding that the Covid-19 group gathering ban was also a concern. “The University respects the freedom of expression and freedom should come with responsibilities.”

In a statement on Facebook on Tuesday evening, the union said it would proceed with the screening: “This is a perennial battle, a war between remembering and forgetting… It is our unwavering commitment to hold the events as scheduled. Students are encouraged to attend the film screening. We shall never forget a single moment of Hong Kong’s history.”

National security police arrested eight Chinese University of Hong Kong students in December last year, over the use of the banned slogan during a protest march on campus. They were detained upon suspicion of subversion – a violation of the security law.

CUHK Chinese university of hong kong protest march nov 19 2020 20201119
The protest march in December at Chinese University of Hong Kong. File Photo: RL/Studio Incendo.

HKUSU’s scheduled screenings were set to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the “Fishball Revolution,” when violent clashes took place between protesters and police in Mong Kok during Lunar New Year in 2016. They were triggered by attempts by the authorities to clear street hawkers.

Dozens of protesters were jailed for their involvement in the clashes, including Leung, who is now serving a six-year jail term for taking part in a riot and assaulting a police officer during the unrest.

Lam’s film documented Leung’s bid to become a legislator and his disqualification from the race.

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Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.