Youth Protest Hong Kong Style: A Q&A on 'Lessons in Dissent' with Filmmaker Matthew Torne

Matthew Torne, a British filmmaker, is coming to Southern California soon to show and discuss his documentary Lessons in Dissent, which analyzes the 2012 Hong Kong protests that were triggered by plans to bring mainland style patriotic education to the former Crown Colony.
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Matthew Torne, a British filmmaker, is coming to Southern California soon to show and discuss his documentary Lessons in Dissent, which analyzes the 2012 Hong Kong protests that were triggered by plans to bring mainland style patriotic education to the former Crown Colony. Completed just before the start of last fall's Umbrella Movement (which I wrote about for the Los Angeles Review of Books and other venues), the film (the Southern California screenings of which include ones at UCLA on February 23 and at UC Irvine on February 25) focuses on two student activists. One is Ma Jai and the other is Joshua Wong, who became the most widely recognized leader of the 2014 protest wave and was a runner up for TIME magazine's 2014 Person of the Year. I caught up with the filmmaker by email, while he was on the road showing his documentary in other parts of the United States, and he was good enough to provide me with answers to the following series of questions:

JW: I guess an obvious question to ask about a film dealing with the 2012 Hong Kong protests is how you see your documentary helping viewers make sense of what happened after it was shot. There are strong similarities between the scenes your film shows and some that flashed across small and large screens last fall, and there is continuity in the activists and leaders involved, too. What are some things that stand out to you as particularly striking when it comes to continuities between 2012 and 2014? And what are crucial differences to keep in mind?

MT: I think the Umbrella Movement marks a divide between the older generation's leadership of the democracy movement in Hong Kong and the new generation's leadership. There is a distinct difference between the two generations. Members of the older generation have spent the last thirty years making very good legal arguments but have achieved very little. This is because Beijing interprets the Basic Law as it sees fit, rather than treating it as something to be assessed by an independent judge. The accomplished lawyers and barristers of the older generation (Martin Lee, Audrey Eu, Margret Ng, Alan Leong, etc.) forget this. Essentially legal arguments make no difference to Beijing's position.

JW: How would you describe the younger generation and what makes them different?

MT: The younger generation see that the older generation have achieved very little and are ready to try something different, something more radical. Whilst the Umbrella Movements marks the coming of age of the younger generation and their ascent to leadership of the democracy movement, my film charts the emergence of this generation of activists. It therefore provides a very useful insight in to what makes them tick and the way they formulate their tactics. The National Education campaign was a precursor to and testing ground for the Umbrella Movement. However, many of the Umbrella Movement activists mistakenly thought that because huge protests worked at stopping implementation of Article 23 [a proposed law on subversion sometimes called a Hong Kong equivalent of the Patriot Act, which was tabled after demonstrations] and (somewhat) worked with stalling the National Education plan, that they would work again with "genuine" universal suffrage. They failed to realise that in both Article 23 and National Education, the government was pushing for regressive legislation but the protesters were only pushing for a return to the status quo. The government could back down and return to the status quo, i.e. not lose ground to the protesters. It only failed to make ground in its objective of increased authoritarianism. But during the Umbrella Movement the protesters were pushing for a progressive change, this required the CCP to concede ground - accept limits to the ability to exercise sovereignty. Returning to the status quo was not an acceptable option for either party. Hence deadlock.

JW: What about similarities between 2012 and 2014?

MT: A crucial similarity between the anti-National Education campaign and the Umbrella Movement was that in each case there was no planning on the part of the students, they were making it up as they went along. This lack of strategy was okay during the short anti-National Education campaign, which only lasted ten days; they could just wing it. But it was crippling for a longer struggle, like that of 2014. They had essentially run out of ideas by the end of the student strike just as the Umbrella Movement proper was beginning.

JW: Sometimes the degree to which the 2012 protests were a youth movement as well as a political struggle gets lost, something that also happens in some discussions of the 1989 demonstrations on the mainland. The use you make of songs and moments of playfulness among protesters who were, after all, very young, gets that side of things across well. Were you self-consciously trying to do that?

MT: It just seemed important to include the Beyond song [an anthem of the movement] because you can't go to a Hong Kong protest without hearing it (I bet the band wish the protesters paid royalties!). I wanted to represent these kids, these protests, as they were, not the way the Western media reports them, but the way activists experience them. We have lots of footage of the Scholarism kids messing around and being silly -- they are just 15-17 years old -- but I didn't include it in the film because it slowed the film down or took the viewer away from the central thrust of the story.

JW: How have reactions to the film varied when you have done showings in different kinds of settings?

MT: We've had a really positive response from Hongkongers, as well as those elsewhere who are interested in Hong Kong and China studies. For me, the response of the first group is the most important; the film was made for Hongkongers, if Westerners enjoy it, then that's an added bonus. But I tried to avoid doing what so many documentaries on Asian topics do -- make films about Asia for Western consumption. For me it's important that if you're making a film about a certain group of people that it is for them.

JW: What is the most surprising or simply memorable response you have had to the documentary?

MT: I am continually amazed at the emotional responses the film provokes in some Hongkongers. Of course I'm pleased, but being British I'm not very good at dealing with emotional people, I don't know what to say to them except I'm pleased they enjoyed it. The thing which continues to surprise me is when people ask me "So who was right, Joshua or Ma Jai?"

JW: Are you planning a sequel? If not, what's next for you?

MT: I'm not planning a sequel as such, but I am working on a film about the Umbrella Movement. I want to try and do something radically different from Lessons in Dissent but I don't feel like I'm done with Hong Kong's democracy movement. It still fascinates me, its just as important as its ever been and we're now seeing a changing of the guard in HK's democracy movement plus Xi Jinping increasing his grip on the CCP in way we haven't seen since Deng Xiaoping. The next ten years are going to be very interesting and I hope the international media properly reports it. Hong Kong's energy is a constant source of creative inspiration for me. It's my favourite city in the world bar none. I hope this is just the beginning of making movies in Hong Kong.

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