As the international media has picked up on the student-led protests in Hong Kong, many Americans have heard of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Not many, however, are as well informed about the long-standing history of tension and discontent that ultimately culminated in this movement in one of Asia’s most recognizable cities. Fortunately, Lessons in Dissent, director Matthew Torne’s debut documentary, provides a unique grass-root perspective into the unrest in Hong Kong by documenting the seeds of dissent beginning as early as 2011.
The film made its debut at Hong Kong’s international film festival this past April and made its way to campus this past Tuesday at a special screening hosted by the Council on East Asian Studies at Yale University. The screening was followed by a Q&A session with Torne.
The documentary follows the social activism of two relatively unknown youngsters, Joshua Wong, 15 at the time, and Ma Jai, 17. In hindsight, if Torne’s decision to document the city’s unrest back in 2011 has proven inspired, his choice of leading characters is downright prophetic. Wong, 18, has now become the face of the entire Hong Kong protest and a media superstar in his own right, landing the cover of Time magazine and coverage in various international publications. Lessons traces the conception and growth of Scholarism, a student activist group formed by Wong in protest of the National Education, a “brain-washing” curriculum that extols the communist and nationalist ideology of China’s Communist Party. The rise of Wong’s stardom is also closely documented through his perseverance in social activism despite his young age, his ability to inspire his peers, and his eloquent handling of the media and the public. The film’s other protagonist, Ma, however, acts as a counterbalance to Wong in terms of personality and ideals of social activism. Ma, a camera-shy character is portrayed as a behind-the-scene activist working for the radical League of Social Democrats. Although not spoken of explicitly, Torne clearly chose the two characters in order to reveal that tensions exist even within different groups of social activists, despite their common goal.
Beyond documenting the work of these two young activists, the film provides a kaleidoscopic view of the nature of Hong Kong’s society and its citizens’ identity crisis. It touches upon the roles of religion, class divisions and generational disconnection as well as the tangible controversies that lead to the many protests, such as National Education. While never deviating from the documentation of grass root social activism in Hong Kong, Thorne has managed to incorporate enough vivid side notes to provoke contemplation of the city’s more deep-seated struggle with its national identity, beyond the superficial protests.
The style of documentation in Lessons is largely conventional, with action scenes of the protests interspersed with interviews and behind-the-scenes planning. However, Torne takes artistic license to divide the documentary into several “lessons,” each with a specific theme. Despite the framework of the “lessons,” the documentary seems somewhat chaotic in its portrayal of the many issues and protests Wong and Ma are involved in throughout the 18 months. This sense of disorder within a defined structure seems symbolic of the student activists’ struggle to make their voices heard in an unyielding government system and a generally apathetic society.