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  • Sep 23, 2020

Hong Kong Filmmakers Decry Government Warning Messages on Protest Documentaries

Still image from the documentary

The Hong Kong government’s Office of Film, Newspaper and Article Administration (OFNAA) required two documentaries about the 2019 Hong Kong protests, which were scheduled for public screening at Hong Kong Arts Centre (HKAC) from September 21–23, to have warning messages appended to the beginning citing depictions of “acts that may constitute criminal offences under prevailing laws” and, in the case of one film, that the commentary is potentially "misleading or unverified."

The nonprofit organization Ying E Chi Cinema, the distributor of these documentary films, titled Taking Back the Legislature and Inside the Red Brick Wall (both 2019), strongly objected to the OFNAA's requests to have the films carry warning labels and attempted to add their own message saying that the OFNAA's message, “does not reflect the will of the directors.” Ultimately, despite the highly irregular requirements from the government, the distributor said they “compromised for this instance in order to facilitate this screening” at HKAC.

When approval was granted, OFNAA rated the latter film, about the violent standoff and siege between police and students at Hong Kong's Polytechnic University in late November 2019, as a Category III Film, thereby limiting viewers to those 18 years old or older. The notification for the age restriction, along with OFNAA's final approval for public release, came less than two hours before the first screening, compelling Ying E Chi to refund tickets sold to younger audience members. 

In its Facebook post, Ying E Chi expressed concerns that the OFNAA's requests would “set the wrong example for the industry” for films with similar political concerns, adding that while the organization compromised, it “will keep on protesting.”

Produced by an anonymous group of Hong Kong filmmakers, the two documentaries, 47 and 87 minutes in length, respectively, record separate incidents during the city’s 2019 social movement ignited by a proposed extradition law bill, namely the storming of The Legislative Council of Hong Kong (LegCo) on July 1, 2019 and the siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University from November 17–29, 2019.

The two documentaries had premiered in January during the Hong Kong Independent Film Festival, but according to Ying E Chi, the organization has been in a tug of war with OFNAA since August, following the enactment of the controversial National Security Law on June 30. Ying E Chi submitted the new versions of the films with the requested messages on September 3 along with an additional disclaimer, clarifying that the warning is issued by OFNAA and “does not reflect the will of the directors,” which then OFNAA rejected on September 8. The re-edited versions with the additional note removed were submitted to the OFNAA on September 9. No explanations were given about the imposed Category III rating, although according to the distributor, when the original DVDs were returned they had been shattered, with a note on the outside of the government envelope reading, “broken pieces of Poly U.”

Images on the group's Facebook account show that the requested warning messages differ for the two films. For Inside the Red Brick Wall, the message reads: “The film records the serious incidents at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and nearby areas in November 2019. Some of those depictions or acts may constitute criminal offences under prevailing laws. Some of the contents of or commentaries in the film may be unverified or misleading.” For Taking Back the Legislature, which did not receive a Category III designation, the message lacks the OFNAA's second statement about the film including "unverified or misleading" commentaries.

Established by a group of independent filmmakers in 1997, nonprofit Ying E Chi supports local independent films. It is currently run by film director Vincent Chui, who also distributed Lost in the Fumes (2017), a documentary about the activist Edward Leung Tin Kei.

Pamela Wong is ArtAsiaPacific’s assistant editor. 

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