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The Cannes Film Festival made a bombshell, last-minute addition to its lineup this week, inviting select members of the international press to attend a “confidential” screening of Revolution of Our Times, a gripping, politically powerful documentary initially described only as being “about the protests in Hong Kong.” Until its unveiling in Cannes, the film’s existence was not publicly known.
Revolution of Our Times has been scheduled to receive just one official special screening in Cannes, at 11 a.m. on Friday. The semi-secretive manner in which the film’s inclusion was announced initially aroused more curiosity in Cannes than its origins and subject matter.
On late Wednesday, the festival sent an email to the international press stating that a “surprise documentary” had been added to the program. Earlier in the day, however, a small number of film reporters were invited to attend a “confidential” screening in the Palais’ Salle Soixantieme. The Hollywood Reporter‘s correspondent was among the approximately 10 people present at the discreet afternoon showing. The festival requested at the time that no news about the film be released until Thursday afternoon, Cannes time.
As it turns out, the sensitivity surrounding the film appears warranted. Revolution of Our Times is a forensic and hard-hitting chronicle of the mass street protests that erupted in Hong Kong in the second half of 2019 — protests that were met with a brutal police crackdown, hundreds of arrests of activists and pro-democracy advocates, and the eventual imposition of near-total Chinese Communist Party control over the once-semidemocratic former colony. Thanks to Hong Kong’s expansive new National Security Law, imposed by Beijing in 2020, those involved in the new documentary could be subject to arrest and charges of subversion.
Revolution of Our Times is directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Kiwi Chow, 42, best known as one of the directors who contributed to Hong Kong’s 2015 indie hit Ten Years, a sci-fi dystopian anthology film that gathered five shorts, each exploring different ways that Hong Kong might change under Communist Party rule by the year 2025. Chow’s contribution, titled Self-Immolator, was among the politically starkest of the collection, telling the story of an elderly Hong Kong woman who sets herself on fire in protest after witnessing a Hong Kong pro-independence protestor being brutally beaten by police. The segment was considered extreme at the time of its release, but the reality in Hong Kong quickly caught up with Chow’s vision.
Revolution of Our Times uses extensive footage taken from the tumultuous events on the ground in Hong Kong in 2019, as well as interviews with a number of the activists involved (mostly done anonymously and with their faces disguised), to chart the growth of the pro-democracy movement. It simultaneously documents the sharp increase in police brutality as Hong Kong became engulfed in deadly street battles, including the 12-day siege of the Polytechnic University in November 2019. In one of the film’s most shocking moments, a body is seen being pushed out of a high-rise window, with Hong Kong authorities accused of kidnapping and murdering several of the movement’s central figures. The film is said to have been put together entirely in secret.
“Over the past fifty years, Hongkongers have fought for freedom and democracy but have yet to succeed,” reads the synopsis for Revolution of Our Times. “In 2019, the Extradition Bill to China opened Pandora’s box, turning Hong Kong into a battlefield against the Chinese authoritarian rule.”
Chow, it says, made this documentary to tell the story of the movement, “both with a macro view of its historical context and up close and personal on the front lines.”
Aside from Chow, the film states that the majority of those involved in the making of Revolution of Our Times — understandably — use pseudonyms in the credits, with the producer going by “Dear Bros.” Ahead of the credits, it declares that Revolution of Our Times was made “By Hongkongers.”
So far, Cannes organizers have offered no official explanation for the secretive and last-minute nature of Revolution of Our Times‘ addition to the festival program. But sources close to the festival have suggested that precautions were taken to protect the filmmakers.
Industry attendees also have been quick to surmise that the screening of the film — however discreet — is all but certain to upset China’s ruling Communist Party, and could risk the attendance of Chinese films and filmmakers at future editions of the festival.
Chow himself offered a statement of appreciation to the festival, writing: “I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to Cannes. It is our honor to have the World Premiere of “Revolution of Our Times”, a film documenting the struggle of Hongkongers, at Cannes; and receive great attention. 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!”
Cannes has frequently stood with filmmakers facing political persecution in their home countries, such as Iranian director Jafar Panahi (This Is Not a Film) and Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov (Petrov’s Flu), both of whom were under house arrest and unable to attend the festival when their films were screened.
But Hong Kong’s protest movement has found precious few allies over the past two years, as Beijing has leveraged China’s outsize economic clout to attempt to punish any companies or individuals who dare throw their support behind democracy in Hong Kong.
In October 2019, the NBA — the most popular and profitable U.S. sporting league in China by far — was banned from broadcast in the country for a full year after the Houston Rockets general manager at the time, Daryl Morey, put out a single, seven-word tweet voicing support for Hong Kong’s movement. (“Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”)
In August that same year, Chinese actress Crystal Liu, star of Disney’s China-set action tentpole Mulan, created an international backlash when she voiced her support for the Hong Kong police force’s crackdown on protestors. The activist movement in Hong Kong called for a boycott of Mulan, but Disney, an ardent supporter of social movements in the U.S., such as Black Lives Matter, remained completely mum on the topic of democracy in Hong Kong. Many analysts pointed out at the time that the entertainment conglomerate would very likely see its multibillion-dollar Shanghai Disneyland theme park shuttered by Beijing if it were to speak out on the issue.
Hong Kong politics also are believed to have resulted in the 2021 Oscars ceremony being totally blocked from broadcast in mainland China and Hong Kong earlier this year. Broadcasters and regulators never supplied a reason for the mysterious suspension of the awards show in Greater China, but many connected to the industry believe it was intended as retribution for the Academy’s nomination of the Hong Kong protest film Do Not Split in the best short documentary category (past critical comments made by Oscar best director winner Chloe Zhao (Nomadland) about her home country also irked the authorities).
Beijing has moved with alarming swiftness to crush the Hong Kong movement featured in Revolution of Our Times. The repressive National Security Law put in place in the territory last year has resulted in the arrest of over 100 activists and opposition politicians. The crackdown also has had the intended effect of driving protestors overseas or into a state of self-censorship, as a chill has swept through the city’s creative community and civil society as a whole. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong school curriculum has been rewritten to teach fealty to the Chinese Communist Party, books have been banned, and pro-democracy journalists arrested at their jobs.
In July, The Apple Daily, a popular Hong Kong newspaper that had allied itself with the pro-democracy cause, was forced to close after its offices were raided by Hong Kong police and five of its editors and executives arrested. The CCP said in a statement that the publication had abused “so-called freedom of the press.” The Apple Daily‘s outspoken founder, Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, was arrested last year and remains in prison facing charges of national security offenses that carry a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
A recent rewriting of the censorship rules governing Hong Kong’s film industry, once a bastion of cinematic vitality — and the home to Bruce Lee, Wong Kar Wai, Stephen Chow, Jackie Chan, Johnnie To and scores more — will ensure that Revolution of Our Times can never be screened freely in the city.
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