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For his Oscar-nominated short documentary Do Not Split, director Anders Hammer spent a year in Hong Kong’s streets, capturing the drama and chaos as China cracked down on pro-democracy protests. The work came with inherent danger.
“The risk I was facing was basically being hit by random rubber bullets and teargas canisters flying through the air and also these firebombs that went here and there,” Hammer tells Deadline. “I was also hit by some rubber bullets…I broke my nose. That was the worst that happened to me, and that hurt, but it wasn’t a big problem.”
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The Norwegian filmmaker minimizes the potential consequences he faced compared to those for demonstrators.
“The protestors risked up to life in prison, and also the risk of really being brutally handled by police, which a lot were,” he notes. “It was really sad to see this violence being played out. The police became more and more aggressive.”
Hammer has shot in dangerous environments before—in Afghanistan, where he lived and worked for six years, in Cairo during the Arab Spring uprising. He hastened to Hong Kong in 2019 to document the popular movement that originally sprang up in opposition to a new extradition law that could have sent defendants in Hong Kong to mainland China for trial.
Hammer says he prepped for long days of shooting, stashing “batteries, memory cards in the backpack, lots of batteries and memory cards, so I can stay out for 24 hours if needed. And then just using a quite small camera, so I would not get too tired. I could film and try to hold the camera as stable as possible. In the same way, I was trying to move in a natural way, with the movements of the streets…It’s intentionally very up closely filmed, this movie.”
Do Not Split, produced by Hammer and Charlotte Cook and streaming on Field of Vision’s website, shows the ingenious ways protestors kept up their activities despite the overwhelming force that confronted them. Demonstrators sometimes used laser pointers, for instance, to disrupt the vision of shock troops, and deployed a panoply of umbrellas to shield their identities and repel cascading teargas rounds.
“I think they were very inventive, and we’ve already seen protestors in all the parts of the world have copied the techniques used in Hong Kong,” Hammer observes. “One of their slogans was ‘Be Water,’ and that meant they were acting in an unpredictable way, not causing more aggressiveness at certain points, but would disappear if the police were attacking at great force, to then just suddenly reappear in another place, and then just totally fool the police. And they were really tech savvy, with all their encrypted apps…It was totally interesting and really creative.”
Another motto of demonstrators, ‘Do Not Split,’ became the title of the documentary. The concept was to maintain solidarity, above all else, against China’s repressive moves.
“We have realized a very important thing,” explains Joey Siu, a student activist leader who appears in the documentary. “We have to stick together because only by sticking together we can be strong enough, we can be powerful enough really to ask the government to revoke their decisions, to protest against the Chinese Communist Party. We have to unite, we have to see ourselves as one and not different pro-democracy groups.”
Siu gave up her dream of becoming a schoolteacher to devote herself to the cause.
“We feel like it is our responsibility, our obligation to protect the city, to do whatever we can to defend the values and all these freedoms that we have been cherishing for so long,” she tells Deadline. “We were very determined to sustain the movement [despite police violence] and to rebel against the Chinese Communist Party…We also understand that we don’t have a way back. We cannot surrender.”
When the British handed over control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the Chinese government committed to granting the city a “high degree of autonomy,” including “executive, legislative and independent judicial powers for 50 years,” as the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think thank, put it. But especially of late, with each passing week and month, China appears intent on abrogating that agreement.
“This is basic democratic rights being taken away from people who used to have freedom of press and freedom of expression,” Hammer declares. “Those basic rights are disappearing very, very fast in Hong Kong, faster than I think many people would have guessed. And I think the world community is letting it happen.”
Last week, a court in Hong Kong convicted seven pro-democracy activists of engaging in an “unauthorized” protest in 2019. Late last month the Chinese government-controlled National People’s Congress imposed changes on Hong Kong’s electoral system that will make it virtually impossible for unapproved candidates to win office. And last summer, China enacted a national security law giving it wide latitude to clamp down on dissent.
“After the imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong,” says Siu, “the people who are still inside of the city can no longer participate in demonstrations, they can no longer express their views online, and to state their mind publicly.”
Chinese authorities have reportedly sought to impose a news blackout in China and Hong Kong on the Oscar nominations for Do Not Split and for Nomadland, whose Chinese-born director, Chloé Zhao, previously made some comments perceived as critical of China. And for the first time since 1969 the Oscar telecast may not be seen in Hong Kong after local broadcaster TVB, which has aired the show for decades, declined to renew rights, citing cost factors. Hammer insists the real reason is pressure from China.
“This seems very credible, that Beijing is planning to censor the awards show due to, or at least partly due to, this documentary about the protest in Hong Kong,” he observes, adding that the reported news blackout has only brought more attention to the film.
“We got really a lot of help from Beijing,” Hammer notes paradoxically, “because the media coverage has been extensive since that happened.”
Siu, who has gone into exile in the U.S, may attend the Oscar ceremony in L.A. on April 25. Hammer, who is based in Norway, says he doubts he’ll be able to travel to the U.S., but may head to a satellite location the Academy is setting up for nominees abroad (one is “100-percent confirmed” for London, while other locations are TBD).
Hammer says his reaction to learning of the Oscar nomination was subdued, because his thoughts were on the people of the city he documented in Do Not Split.
“I feel really sad about the situation in Hong Kong now,” he admits. “Of course I was happy for our movie being nominated, but I was not dancing and cheering. Maybe I would have done if it was a fictional movie…To put it short, it was a day of mixed feelings.”
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