Jennifer Ngo was working as a journalist in London when massive protests broke out in her native Hong Kong in 2019.
She watched news feeds and live streams with a mixture of “heartbreak” at the violence and “hope” that Hong Kongers were taking to the streets in the name of democracy once again.
“After 2014 there was a big social movement and nothing really changed, a lot of people were discouraged. So when 2019 came along, I was both terrified and hopeful that people are once again on the streets, and as a journalist I felt I had to be part of this, I had to document this,” she says.
Ngo headed back to Hong Kong to make her first ever documentary, “Faceless,” which focuses on the individual journeys of four young protestors (none of whom are named).
Following the film’s European premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Ngo participated in a panel called “Hong Kong & the Fight for 21st Century Democracy” to discuss her personal reasons behind making the film and ensuring that it went beyond the headlines that so many are used to reading about the protests.
On a day-to-day level, Ngo said the priorities while shooting were to make sure no one got hit by tear gas, no one got arrested, and that the crew were in the right place at the right time to capture the raw, emotional events as they unfolded.
Many of the hardest decisions about how much of people’s faces to show and what parts of their stories to reveal came in the edit, Ngo said.
“Trying to tell these personal stories without telling you who they are, that was really tough for me, and in the end, after months of struggle, we decided on the name ‘Faceless,’” she said. “It’s a play on the many different things we need to juggle. It’s a faceless movement, everyone is covered up, but we’re trying to show you those faces behind the masks… trying to show what makes us human, what makes these people, people. It’s not a judgment on whether something they’ve done is right or wrong, it’s just saying that these are human decisions, there are human lives we’re dealing with.”
The panel opened with Evan Fowler, co-founder of the Hong Kong Free Press, giving a brief overview of Hong Kong’s recent tumultuous history and focusing on several key events (from the 1997 handover between the U.K. government and the People’s Republic of China, to the Umbrella Movement of 2014), which forged the seemingly impossible situation Hong Kong finds itself in today.
“In 2019, what we saw wasn’t just people getting worked up and worried about the extradition bill, it was really the culmination of 20 years of building pressure in Hong Kong,” Fowler said. “There was a very real fear that this wasn’t just about extradition, this was about our own personal security. Looking at the way that civil society has been cracked down on in the mainland left a lot of people saying, well Beijing is prepared to do these things illegally, if they can do them legally, what door are we opening?”
Victor Fan from King’s College London provided further context as to how Hong Kong has been “doubly occupied” by the competing colonial forces of the U.K. and China.
“We are beginning to see that there is almost no way by which we can negotiate that status of de-subjectivization, de-individuation and de-autonomization. I would almost say that in 2019 the question becomes extraterritoriality. We’re always being doubly ostracized in a political, social and linguistic terrain,” Fan said.
As conversation turned back to “Faceless,” politician and activist Nathan Law noted the documentary’s importance in reducing a massive movement to an individual level.
News broadcasts provided a wider audience with a view of the protests as millions of people marching, with petrol bombs flying over the city. While this wasn’t inaccurate, Law said “Faceless” can give a clearer image of the people behind the movement, can help explain why the protestors are willing to “commit themselves and even their lives” in defense of democracy.
“I think it opens another window of us looking into the movement, not only what has it achieved, where has it failed, but also what all those people have been experiencing and the traumas and the things they have to deal with afterwards,” Law said. “That’s our current state: We’ve got a lot of young people who have come to the U.K. with PTSD, with traumatizing experiences, with the need for help. These are things that are ongoing. We can easily observe from the movie that those scars and those traumas linger. It’s something that reminds all of us that this is a continuous movement.”
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