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Filmmakers Worry Hong Kong Film Censors Will Stifle Expression

A ticket screen showing a scene of the movie "Far From Home", right, a short about the political division in Hong Kong following the anti-government protests in 2019, at a cinema in Hong Kong, June 11, 2021.

Filmmakers are raising concerns about new guidelines for Hong Kong’s film censor that instruct them to ban movies deemed endangering national security.

Last week, the Hong Kong government announced that amendments to the territory’s Film Censorship Ordinance could result in movies being banned as part of the Beijing-imposed national security law.

The government statement said it is the “duty” of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) to “safeguard national security” and that “censors must abide by these provisions.”

Local and international filmmakers who have worked in Hong Kong said the changes could hurt the city’s film industry.

American Joe Piscatella, who directed “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower,” a documentary about Hong Kong teenage activist Joshua Wong, told VOA that while filming in 2015 and 2016, he “never imagined” Hong Kong would have to deal with this level of censorship so soon.

The stakes always felt high for the then-teenage subjects of his documentary, he said, but not the filmmakers.

“We’re filmmakers, in our minds, we’re protected,” he said. “Obviously, that’s all changing. I know it sounds cliché to say it, but it’s going to have a chilling effect on the film business.”

Wong, now 24, is serving consecutive jail sentences following guilty pleas of his participation in unauthorized assemblies during the anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020. He was also charged for subversion under the national security law earlier this year and is awaiting trial.

Piscatella said he expects Hong Kong filmmakers to self-censor and predicts international streaming platforms may buckle over whether to stream a sensitive movie if pressured from China.

“It’s not going to stop somebody from filming,” he said. “I think the problem that will start to rear its head is will mainstream Western media companies want to take up the mantle to fight to put something like that on their platform. Or is that just such a giant headache that they’ll have to deal with China?”

Anders Hammer, a Norwegian filmmaker, received an Oscar nomination this year for his short documentary “Do Not Split” that focused on Hong Kong’s anti-government protests in 2019.

Anders Hammer, director of "Do Not Split," an Oscar-nominated documentary about the 2019 protests in Hong Kong speaks during an interview in Oslo, Norway, April 7, 2021.
Anders Hammer, director of "Do Not Split," an Oscar-nominated documentary about the 2019 protests in Hong Kong speaks during an interview in Oslo, Norway, April 7, 2021.

“These new film rules will make it even harder for local filmmakers to use their democratic rights to create art and challenge unjust power structures,” he told VOA. “This week, it’s two years since the pro-democracy protests started and it’s really sad to see another serious example of Beijing’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s civil liberties.”

Hammer’s film was panned by Chinese film industry observers, who said the documentary was “full of biased political stances” and “lacks artistry,” according to China’s state-controlled media the Global Times.

Since Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, the city was supposed to continue to enjoy certain freedoms unseen in mainland China under a “one country, two systems,” an agreement lasting for 50 years.

Despite those promises, critics have complained the city has become increasingly more aligned with China's mainland model, which is governed by the Chinese Communist Party.

After 2019’s pro-democracy protests, Beijing implemented the national security law for Hong Kong, which came into effect last year. Since then, dozens of pro-democracy activists have been arrested and jailed, while slogans have been banned and pro-democracy material has been removed from libraries.

The new film censorship guidelines, Hong Kong authorities say, is “built on the premise of a balance between protection of individual rights and freedoms on the one hand, and the protection of legitimate societal interests on the other.”

The new policy calls out for special scrutiny of documentaries, particularly about Hong Kong. “The local audience may likely feel more strongly about the contents of the film or be led into believing and accepting the whole contents of the film, and the effect on viewers would be more impactful,” the censor guidelines state. “The censor should carefully examine whether the film contains any biased, unverified, false or misleading narratives or presentation of commentaries, and the tendency of such contents to lead viewers to imitate the criminal or violent acts depicted.”

In China, movies are heavily vetted, and censorship is common, with few Western productions made available to Chinese moviegoers.

In March, Hong Kong’s largest TV network cancelled its broadcast of the Academy Awards for the first time in over 50 years, citing “commercial reasons.” The decision came as China requested media to lessen coverage of the awards after Hammer’s documentary received a nomination. China’s government was also displeased by the political views of Beijing-born director Chloe Zhao, who subsequently won the Best Director award for her movie Nomadland.

Recently, organizers of the Fresh Wave International Short Film festival in Hong Kong pulled a screening of “Far From Home,” a short political film about Hong Kong following the 2019 anti-government protests. Reports say that censors didn’t approve the screening.

Nick Liu, an independent filmmaker from Hong Kong and director of "Tomorrow Is Not Promised," told VOA the new rules are not clear, making it hard for filmmakers who “don’t know what plot can or can’t show in the film.”

An experienced member of the film industry in Hong Kong, who requested anonymity when discussing the national security law, told VOA that much depends on how the censors decide to apply the rules. Will authorities use the same standards on foreign films, he asked.

“Will a film like South Korea’s “1987” be banned just because it’s about political activism?”