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In April, Matthew Torne‘s documentary about social activism in Hong Kong made its bow at the city’s international film festival — and the packed screenings there (followed by equally well-attended individual screenings in a single cinema over the summer) seemed likely to be the apex of its run. Now, thanks to the local police force’s heavy-handed efforts to quash the protests and the demonstrators’ principled persistence — a standoff that has generated international headlines about an “umbrella revolution” — Lessons in Dissent has suddenly taken on a new life, as the Mumbai International Film Festival prepares to screen the film as part of its Real Reel selection this week.
Unfolding across seven chapters — or “lessons,” as the intertitles describe them — Lessons in Dissent offers a no-frills primer on Hong Kong’s new generation of civil rights campaigners, all of them players in probably one of the most critical junctures in the former British colony’s history after its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. And the star of the show is certainly Joshua Wong, the audacious, articulate and once manhandled-and-arrested spokesman for Hong Kong’s ongoing pro-democracy protests, whose efforts have landed him on the cover of Time and grouped in (by the British newspaper The Guardian) with newly awarded Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai and Joan of Arc as a teenager who “rocked the world.”
But all that happened afterward. When Torne began filming Wong, he was a folk hero of a more local nature, looked up to by young idealists in Hong Kong for his efforts to roll back official attempts to introduce compulsory national (read: nationalist) education in the city’s high schools. Still just 15 then and frequently leading protests in his school uniform — the documentary’s Chinese title is Cantonese slang for “underage” — Wong and fellow members in the student collective Scholarism rejuvenated social activism in the city and rewrote its rules, their idealism backed up by an inventive knack for exploiting 21st century technology and mass media in conveying their views and mobilizing the masses.
Lessons also reveals Wong’s background: Hailing from a middle-class, devoutly Christian family, the teenager — who just reached the voting age of 18 on Oct. 13 — also reveals himself as more or less a nerd who somehow found a way to click with audiences young and old. Torne’s record of Wong also includes an interesting anecdote elucidating the changes in Wong’s attitude between his initial campaigns for reform and the current movement. Back then, he would refuse to join demonstrations from other more radical political groups because they weren’t granted a license from the authorities — an irony, given how he’s now leading a technically “illegal” occupation of local thoroughfares.
Wong’s altered perspective also speaks volumes about the growing pessimism and fury stemming from the curtailment of civil rights in Hong Kong — that all has never been well, and that it will take extreme measures to rectify the extreme injustice permeating society. It’s here that Torne’s second subject in Lessons in Dissent is introduced: Unlike the media-savvy Wong, Ma Wan-kei toils away from the limelight as a member of the left-wing League of Social Democrats. His dedication to the cause has led him to drop out of school and sometimes even sleep in the party’s small offices — and he’s seen as more willing to push the envelope in confronting the authorities in demonstrations across the city-state.
The two young men readily admit they were on diverging paths in terms of political engagement — and Torne’s documentary offers a contrast of ways but not wills in fighting for the betterment of society. Wong and Ma might hint in the documentary that they are learning as they go along, but their views and experiences provide just as important a series of lessons for those who seek to understand the many young social activists braving tear gas, pro-government thugs and shattered personal futures in order to fight for what they think is right.
A conventional piece, Lessons in Dissent is hardly a game-changer aesthetically — but what it does is present a timely portrait of some actual game-changers in action, fighting for political justice and against all the talk of Z-generation ennui.
Production company: Torne Films
Director-screenwriter: Matthew Torne
Producers: Matthew Torne, Grace Wong
Cinematographer: Eddie Hung Hon-chuen
Editor: Lam Kin-kua
Music: Phila Yuen
International Sales: Torne Films
No MPAA rating, 97 minutes
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