When the Oscar nominations were published this year, the Global Times newspaper, published with the blessing of the Chinese Communist Party, was quick to post a comment on “Do Not Split” competing for the award for best short documentary this Sunday. (25).
“The work has a political bias and lacks artistic merit,” the title said. In the text, “film industry observers” warn that the nomination could “hurt the feelings of the Chinese” and have repercussions. How much foreknowledge. A few days later, the government banned the Oscars from showing.
“Do Not Split” is one of those documentaries that put the viewer at the forefront of a historical event. He has scenes of high tension about the protests that erupted in 2019, when a bill threatened to allow the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to China.
Norwegian filmmaker Anders Hammer initially intended to approach the story from different sides, listening to activists, politicians and people aligned with China. He came up against the reserve and mistrust of the last two groups and opted for another strategy: to record the facts on the ground floor. He only used images captured by himself, between September 2019 and the coronavirus pandemic epidemic, already in 2020.
The camera especially accompanies the very young demonstrators who clashed with the police and responded with molotov cocktails to the tear gas bombs thrown by the shock battalions. Hammer adheres to the principle of “show instead of explain”. There is very little contextualization and no analysis.
But why did the film “hurt feelings”? To bring more than sound and fury. Its 35 minutes strongly reflect the anguish of a population struggling against a much stronger opponent – and increasingly ready to suppress its identity and freedoms.
It is interesting to compare “Do Not Split” with “Ten Years”, available on Netflix. It is a collection released in 2015, with short fiction films that imagine Hong Kong in the near future. In one, a citizen sets his body on fire. In another, the Cantonese dialect spoken in Hong Kong is gradually being banned. In a third, some catalogs of the memories of the disappeared. A curious kinship unites these little dystopian fictions and the documentary. Both have, above all, an emotional impact.
This impact could perhaps be mitigated if “Do Not Divide” showed other points of view and had greater historical depth. But China is unlikely to appreciate it more because of it. What defines the relationship between the communist giant and the tiny island are broken promises – something no observer with the slightest exemption would escape.
When Hong Kong ceased to be a British colony in 1997, China agreed to maintain it as an autonomous region until at least 2047. Beijing would decide foreign policy issues. Hong Kong’s civil liberties would be maintained and even extended to accommodate free elections. However, China quickly began to explore ambiguities in Hong Kong’s constitution to reduce its autonomy.
In 2005, the island rose up for the first time against these devices. In 2014, the umbrella revolution arrived (even today, gas bomb shields). The longest and fiercest series of protests in 2019. It will come as no surprise that the streets fill up again as soon as the restrictions on the pandemic are lifted. In March, several hundred have already mobilized against the arrest of 47 pro-democracy activists.
“Do Not Split” can be seen on the website of production company Field of Vision. If you’re not in China, watch the Oscar to see if he takes the statuette.