Taking back the legistature
Taking Back the Legislature, film still, Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers, 2019

‘Most of us have written our wills,’ says a protestor in Inside the Red Brick Wall, one of two documentaries about protest activities in Hong Kong produced by an anonymous filmmaking collective known as the Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers. [1] Despite capturing events that took place in July and November 2019, Taking Back The Legislature and Inside the Red Brick Wall (both 2020) already feel like historical documents. Recorded prior to the pandemic and the postponement of the Legislative Council elections, and before the introduction of the National Security Law and the subsequent sweeping crackdowns and widespread arrests in Hong Kong, both show forms of civil disobedience in the city that have now come to seem like an impossibility.

Prior to the phase of protests that these films depict—in which a mass movement emerged in opposition to a bill proposed in February 2019 that would permit the extradition of Hong Kong citizens suspected of a crime to Taiwan, Mainland China, or Macau—a number of films had been produced about earlier pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong occurring after the handover, growing in scale and severity over recent years. [2]

Chan Tze-Woon’s Yellowing (2016) and James Leong’s Umbrella Diaries: The First Umbrella (2018), both give personal accounts of the ‘Umbrella Movement’ that emerged in 2014, while Evans Chan’s We Have Boots (2020) connects the events of 2014 with those unfolding in 2019. Matthew Torne’s Lessons in Dissent (2014) and Nora Lam’s Lost in the Fumes (2018) look specifically at individual activists, focusing on Joshua Wong (a leader of the pro-democratic political organisation Demosistō and prominent figure in the Occupy Movement) in the former, and Edward Leung (the founder of the pro-independence group ‘Hong Kong Indigenous’, and the man who is credited with coining the slogan ‘Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times’ that was popularised in the 2019/2020 protests) in the latter.

Unlike these informational films that offer an overview of a wider movement or profile the prominent individuals within it, the two films made by the Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers are more experiential in form, simpler, more direct. There are no subjects in the traditional documentary sense, nor any narrative that develops or expands beyond the immediate observational focus. They make no attempt to reduce the complexity of the many years of continuing protest into a short and snappy narrative, establishing context only through a few lines of on-screen text that explains where and when events happened. Instead, the films focus fully on the situations they depict, offering two slices of time and space that convey the experience of being involved in these protest activities, distilling what happened into something compelling. As well as being an essential record, content in both replays the emotional impact felt by those present, conveying a sense of togetherness without romanticising or glorifying events. [3]

Both films screened at IDFA in the Netherlands in November and in Hong Kong prior to that. [4] When watched together, it is striking how they convey a strategic or symbolic specificity of space, depicting the occupation of sites of critical infrastructural importance in which participants contend with the realities and ramifications of their actions.

Unlike other films that represent the multiple stages of the pro-democracy protests, focusing on figures and movements that look back at the recent past to offer a sense of a developing situation in the present, these two Hong Kong Documentary Filmmaker films instead focus on the real time experience itself. Capturing events following the proposed extradition bill and now circulating in a world in which the National Security Legislations introduced in July 2020 has greatly diminished possibilities for freedom of expression in the city, these films occupy a different understanding of events from those predating them.

Built from a shared archive captured by multiple filmmakers, their production mirrors the leaderless movement in action, just as the use of anonymity permits the camera operators a degree of fearlessness and agility. Edited and circulated swiftly in a fashion more akin to journalism than documentary cinema, the focus is on immediacy: the rapid transfer of live action to a public, world wide audience. [5] Reflecting a rapidly changing situation, they do not comment on these events, nor speculate on what may come. Instead they distill and bear witness leaving others to reflect and remember.

Inside the red brick wall
Inside the Red Brick Wall, film still, Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers, 2019


Taking Back the Legislature covers the events of 1 July 2019, the day protestors broke into the Legislative Council Complex, occupying it for several hours. The film tracks events from the beginning of the day (when protestors gathered to protest against the flag-raising ceremony that marked the 22nd anniversary of the handover in 1997), to its end (when the occupation concluded with protestors either fleeing or facing arrest following a violent police response). Throughout, the film offers intense, on-the-ground coverage of the organisational efforts required to storm the building, and the complex, often conflicted feelings held by those involved about whether to enter and what to do once inside.

The film’s perspective is bracingly immediate; events are edited into a fluid, clear narrative from which the day’s events flow. [6] Daytime footage makes entry look unlikely. Images of protestors repeatedly driving a makeshift battering ram into bulletproof glass create a very literal emblem for the protest movement: these determined people are seen tiring themselves out with each ineffectual charge, never giving up. Eventually, almost surprisingly, cracks in the glazed entrance begin to appear. Police, standing inside looking scared, scatter when the glass finally shatters and protestors flood into the building’s central chamber, leaving some to keep watch outside.

Inside, the energy is chaotic, but cathartic. Protestors break furniture, defile portraits of legislators, spray slogans on the building’s walls. ‘No rioters, only tyranny,’ one reads. Eventually they will have to leave. Opinion is divided as to when. A handful want to remain in the building for as long as possible and are willing to die in the process. Most simply want their act to be perceived as intentional, to communicate their message. ‘Us Hongkongers can’t afford to lose anymore,’ one man shouts, taking off his mask to outline a set of demands to be broadcast to the world.

With more police gathering, protestors outside want everyone out, but within the chamber many feel the need to stay put. In the fray of voices, ideas and energies, a kind of consensus emerges. ‘We advance and retreat together,’ the crowd shouts in unison. After some separation, the collective body coagulates into one. ‘We leave together!’ Anyone still inside is now dragged out, carried forcefully by fellow protestors before the police arrive with violence in mind.


Covering events that took place within the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University over several weeks in November 2019, Inside the Red Brick Wall (2020) depicts a longer occupation from which exiting proved much more complex. After protestors built a roadblock adjacent to the university, police responded violently, blockading the protestors in the campus, barraging them with tear gas, rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds, and threatening anyone in the area with rioting charges. Like Taking Back The Legislature, Inside the Red Brick Wall is preoccupied with the logistical elements of protest: the acts of on-the-hoof decision-making and (internal and external) communication, as well as the spatial negotiations between protestors and police officers that occur within the mutable territories of the protest zone.

Crucially, unlike the incidents that played out in the Legislative Council Complex, journalists were not permitted within the campus boundaries so this protestors-eye-view record represents an invaluable documentation of what actually occurred. [7] As one protestor says, ‘If I die here, no-one will know.’ [8] The overview captured is comprehensive, incisive and startlingly depressing. Following long days and sleepless nights, protestors become increasingly demoralised and desperate, making repeated attempts to escape, only to be met with violence, or threats of harsh sentencing. Making liberal use of long takes and devoting as much time to ambient, non-combative situations as violent clashes, Inside the Red Brick Wall is attuned to the temporal aspects of protest too. Occupation, as seen here, is exhausting and often boring, an unplanned operation without known end.

Armed with bamboo poles, petrol bombs and javelins, protestors attempt to fight back against the police, but are outnumbered, outmuscled and outmanoeuvred. In a key sequence, police are seen playing pop songs through megaphones, choosing tracks with titles such as ‘Surrounded’ and ‘Ambush From Ten Sides’ to further demoralise the besieged. Sleep-deprived, hope-depleted and facing declining sanitary conditions, disagreement over the best course of action becomes widespread within the protestors’ ranks, especially when outside interlocutors enter the campus to try to arrange safe exit for the many protestors who are aged under eighteen. Suspecting a trap, protestors look for alternate routes of escape, abseiling off bridges with makeshift ropes or crawling through sewage drains. The space has become so dangerous that even the most perilous exit-options have started to seem like a viable choice.


Matt Turner is a writer and editor based in London, UK


[1] Anonymity, used here, is no luxury, it is a strategy that permits increased authenticity, allowing events to be shown as they were rather than in the way that it is safest to portray them.

[2] An estimated 500,000 people marched in the streets of Hong Kong in 2003 against an earlier attempt to enact the National Security Law, which was then shelved. ‘Huge protest fills HK streets.’ CNN. July 2 2003. edition.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/asiapcf/east/07/01/hk.protest/

[3] Just as the movement is leaderless, these films have no main characters. Indeed, individuals are actively backgrounded in favour of a portrayal of the crowd. For their protection, protestors’ faces are blurred.

[4] The screening took place in January 2020 at Hong Kong’s Ying E Chi space, a venue established by a group of filmmakers in 1997 to promote and distribute independent cinema in Hong Kong. Kristof Van Den Troost wrote that ‘the screening was a remarkable experience. The memory of both events, especially the traumatic clashes of November, was still fresh and the atmosphere in the theater was one of palpable sadness and anger. When Inside the Red Brick Wall showed a group of police officers exchanging taunts with entrapped protesters, some audience members started shouting expletives back at the police officers on screen.’ Kristof Van den Troost: ‘Propagandist or objective observer? Independent documentaries in/on Hong Kong’s recent social movements.’ Asian Education and Development Studies. 10 November 2020. www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/AEDS-08-2020-0190/full/html

[5] As the filmmakers have said in an interview: ‘Our work does not only belong to us but to the people of Hong Kong.’ Wendy Mitchell: ‘Why some Hong Kong documentary filmmakers are staying anonymous for safety’. Variety. 19 November 2020. www.screendaily.com/features/why-some-hong-kong-documentary-filmmakers-are-staying-anonymous-for-safety/5155073.article

[6] This is not an outsider’s perspective; these films are made uncompromisingly from within.

[7] Along with individuals attempting to provide medical care, many journalists who tried to enter the University boundaries found themselves attacked or arrested. Holmes Chan: ‘Hong Kong police arrest 51 who “claimed to be medics or journalists” near besieged PolyU campus’. Hong Kong Free Press, 18 November 2019. hongkongfp.com/2019/11/18/hong-kong-police-arrest-51-claimed-medics-journalists-near-besieged-polyu-campus/

[8] In an interview, the filmmakers said the siege was a ‘traumatic experience, and ‘a deep scar for those who were trapped inside, but also for those who experienced it outside.’ ‘Many lack basic understanding of how it really happened’, they say. ‘We hope to restore the truth. There are always many sides to the truth, and we hope to restore a missing piece in the society’s narrative about what happened.’ Wendy Mitchell: ‘Why some Hong Kong documentary filmmakers are staying anonymous for safety’. Variety. 19 November 2020. www.screendaily.com/features/why-some-hong-kong-documentary-filmmakers-are-staying-anonymous-for-safety/5155073.article