Forbidden in Hong Kong and China, the documentary Revolution of Our Times, about the 2019–2020 protests by Hongkongers for freedom and democracy, is finding a strong audience in Australia. By Elizabeth Flux.

Documenting Hong Kong's banned revolution

A man wears a mask associated with the Anonymous movement in Revolution of Our Times.
A man wears a mask associated with the Anonymous movement in Revolution of Our Times.
Credit: Kiwi Chow

In Hong Kong, simply saying this film’s title is a potentially arrestable offence. So it feels slightly surreal to be in line for a sold-out session of a documentary that can’t be screened in the place it’s all about.

Revolution of Our Times takes a close look at the protests that swept Hong Kong in 2019. It is a film that is both controversial and dangerous, to the point where only the director, Kiwi Chow, has his name publicly associated with the project. It’s advertised simply as “A film by Hongkongers”. Several of the people interviewed for the documentary have since been arrested and charged for violations of the vaguely worded and harshly wielded national security law – and while the film isn’t outright banned in Hong Kong and China, film censorship guidelines and the national security law make it virtually impossible to screen.

Despite the challenges of getting in front of viewers, there is a clear audience appetite. Revolution of Our Times has been screened at a smattering of festivals across the world, including Cannes. In Taiwan, the only territory to grant the film a wider release, it was named Best Documentary Feature at the 2021 Golden Horse Awards and broke box-office records. So, perhaps it is unsurprising that when a handful of screenings were announced for Australia, the ticket website crashed almost immediately.

The screenings are the result of Hongkonger associations around Australia working in collaboration. Organisers bought the distribution rights, and announced sessions in Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth. By the end of the first weekend, more than 6700 tickets had been sold.

“We’ve been trying to lobby and make people understand locally in Australia what happens in Hong Kong and why it means so much to us – and why it actually means something to the world,” says Charlotte from Australia–Hong Kong Link. “No matter how dramatic the words we use, it still won’t be the same as actually seeing it for yourself.”

“Many Hongkongers living overseas have been trying hard to do what our fellow Hongkongers are no longer able to do in Hong Kong,” says Lucy from Victoria Hongkongers Association. “Assemblies, demonstrations, Tiananmen Square memorials – now including watching this film in cinemas.”

This isn’t just a film for Hongkongers though, it’s a way of showing exactly what happened in 2019. It tells the story of why a quarter of the population took to the streets in protest, and gives context to the arrests that have been taking place since.

I had been prepared for the film to be confronting, but even so I found myself failing to hold back tears within 10 minutes. I was embarrassed, until I realised the woman next to me was also crying.

How to explain what it feels like to be in a room filled with people who get it, who are devastated by the familiar and yet alien nature of what is on the screen in front of us? Who understand why it hurts so much to see people fighting for a freedom that we know now will be stripped away?

We watch the police kick a protester in the head when he’s already pinned to the ground; we watch them shove an old man who is telling them to back off; we watch as they ignore a medic begging to be allowed into a train station to help the injured below.

As someone who had gone out of their way to follow events in Hong Kong, who had been voraciously reading news stories as they came out, I was still taken aback by the details I’d missed – at what hadn’t made it into the media.

Some of the only impressions that made it out of Hong Kong in 2019 were things such as the violence, the storming of the Hong Kong Legislative Council complex, the sit-in at the airport – Revolution of Our Times gives context to this, shows why protesters were driven to these lengths, what it was they were fighting for.

One of the most confronting and striking things in the documentary is watching people do things that feel impossible now. Things that have been stamped out so quickly due to the introduction of the national security law. In the film we see protesters speak out against the celebration of China’s national day in Hong Kong with protests and by cutting down banners – this week, five people were sentenced to prison for up to four-and-a-half years for “rioting” that day.

The film also offers moments of lightness, in its own way, though the moments that received the biggest laughs were in some ways the most quietly heartbreaking. These are the scenes showing that the people out there – the ones taken aback by how costly it is to make a Molotov cocktail or exclaiming “Oh fuck, that’s loud” when their friend lets off a flare – are you, me, anyone. They’re everyday people coming out to defend their home.

While Revolution of Our Times does a solid job of laying out the politics, the chronology of events, it’s the stories of the people involved that cut the deepest. Interviewees, for the most part, are anonymous and referred to only by nicknames. But alongside their names, Chow also lists their occupations. These are business managers, admin workers, students, booksellers, farmers. It highlights that these protesters aren’t violent thugs just itching for a fight – they’re a cross-section of any society, showing just how abnormal and unfair the situation in Hong Kong was and continues to be.

The people on the screen should just be living their lives – wondering what to have for dinner, griping over a slight at work, moving through life instead of having to fight for the ability to move at all. They shouldn’t have to weigh up going to jail for 10 years or drowning in a sewer to escape arrest.

Despite the feeling of community in the cinema, every time there is movement behind me or the door opens I have a moment of anxiety. In 2019, pro-democracy rallies were regularly met with counter-protests by Chinese Nationalists, and memorials and posters are regularly targeted and torn down, with confrontations a common occurrence. Revolution of Our Times is a controversial film – this is why when it is added to a festival line-up it is often announced late or not included in the original program. The screenings around Australia, however, have been advertised for weeks, the locations and times easy to find. Potential danger is something the organisers have prepared for – something they always keep in mind.

“Of course, we have to keep people safe and we have measures in place … we do what we can, but it’s unavoidable because we all know how strong the CCP propaganda is, especially among their own people,” says Charlotte. “At the end of the day it depends on what’s actually more important – is it more important to avoid conflict at all costs? Or is it more important to tell the truth and hold onto that?”

At the same time, she points out “there are actually a fair few mainland Chinese supporters that really want to see the film”, something she wasn’t expecting. Fear of backlash is very real, however, and those who did reach out asked if it would be possible to not link their real names to their ticket purchase.

One of the goals the organisers have for the screening is allowing Hongkongers to remain distinct, to not be homogenised. “We’re trying to build the whole cultural identity, on an international level, where we recognise Hongkongers as Hongkongers and not Chinese,” says Charlotte. “We want people to be united so that when the time comes, when the opportunity comes, we can retake our home.”

Hong Kong doesn’t have its own anthem – prior to 1997 it shared “God Save the Queen” with Britain, and now, officially, shares China’s “March of the Volunteers”. But universal suffrage, independence and democracy are some of the movement’s key goals – and so during the 2019 protests, an unofficial anthem, “Glory to Hong Kong”, was created. Towards the end of Revolution of Our Times, the song plays, in full. A few seconds in, a man to my left stands and starts singing in a loud, clear voice.

It’s beautiful and it’s heartbreaking, and somehow filled with both sorrow and hope. When the lights come up, a man in the row in front of me is weeping.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2022 as "Challenging times".

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