By Maxwell Olin Massa
Is Do Not Split a fine example of provocative filmmaking? Yes. Should you watch it? Certainly. Will it help you understand the forces feeding the discontent and shaping the discourse generated by the conflict? Not really.
One of 10 works shortlisted for this year’s Oscars’ short documentary award, Do Not Split (不割席) is Norwegian journalist Anders Hammer’s chronicle of the 2019 Hong Kong riots. This 35-minute-long work is a street-level record of violence and anguish. Via a succession of intense, authentic images, Hammer drives home the urgency of the young people who are fighting for their way of life, particularly the desperation of the city’s anti-Communist element. And yet, amid the graphic deluge, the lack of historical background becomes problematic. The powerful visuals testify to the collapse of a liberal dream. But how did the struggle arrive at this point? Is Do Not Split a fine example of provocative filmmaking? Yes. Should you watch it? Certainly. Will it help you understand the forces that are feeding the discontent and shaping the discourse generated by the conflict? Not really. Powerful as it is, the movie would have had even greater meaning if it had delved into contextualizing issues: Do Not Split must be regarded as something of a missed opportunity, but one that is certain to prove important, regardless.
Hammer understands the value of opening a film in medias res and Do Not Split‘s first scene delivers the goods. The camera follows a small group of masked Hong Kong youth as they walk the streets of the city, asking for the location of the nearest Bank of China (this is a massive mainland Chinese bank). They find the building and, after rattling at the grating for a couple moments, one of the group manages to find a way inside and calls on his colleagues to join him. Once they’re all in, they spray flammable liquid on the floor and then light the bank on fire. Opening the film with this bold display of property destruction immediately rams home the conflict’s violence and underlines the “you are there” authenticity of the footage. Hammer and his crew deserve credit for setting the scene so effectively, which is particularly necessary for a shorter work.
At that point, a brief message appears onscreen declaring that “In June 2019, protests began in Hong Kong over a proposed bill allowing extradition of criminal suspects to the Chinese mainland.” It further notes that mainland Chinese courts have a conviction rate of 99 percent. From that point on, the documentary focuses on street confrontations, which include paramilitary officers in full battle gear issuing commands to civilian protesters. It is true that the Fugitive Offenders Bill was the immediate catalyst to the most recent round of unrest, but it oversimplifies matters by making it the sole cause for such a massive popular response: it is confusing the straw that broke the camel’s back with the weight of a two-ton beast. What has been pressing on the necks of the people of Hong Kong? The debilitating pressure has been rapidly mounting over the past decade: opposition to the Hong Kong express rail (2009), which links Hong Kong to Guangzhou; revulsion at the proposed system of Moral and National Education (2012); the Umbrella Revolution (2014), which was an important but failed attempt by the people to fight against ham-fisted reforms to Hong Kong’s election system; the violent abduction of employees at Causeway Books (2015); the disqualification of duly-elected representatives from holding office because of their unwillingness to pledge fealty to China (2016); and the imprisonment of democracy activists (2017). In addition to these proofs of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s determination to curtail free speech and assembly, there’s the hellacious inequity of Hong Kong’s economy. The city’s wealth gap is one of the biggest in the world (its Gini coefficient in 2021 was the eighth highest on the planet, which puts it in a worse position than Guatemala). On top of that, it has the most expensive housing market globally, which has driven many inhabitants to live in “coffin homes” that are often as small as 3 feet x 6 feet. It is this stranglehold of issues – some attributable to the CCP, some not – that are responsible for the urban uprising of 2019, not the extradition bill in isolation.
Hammer finally addresses the issue of what the protesters actually want at around 9:40, where a masked activist discusses the Five Demands (五大诉求), among which she highlights the issue of police brutality. This is what people have been agitating for, but it’s over and done with 25 seconds later, by 10:05. The manner in which the information is presented is also a little misleading: heavy-handed law enforcement was not — to my knowledge — one of the original motives for the protest movement, but emerged as one, over the course of events. The desire for China to respect the Five Demands is bracketed with the kind of action that receives most of Hammer’s attention: images of protest, mayhem, and fear. His handling of this material is very compelling. The weaving together of footage from the streets, filled with young people who are willing to gamble their lives in order to battle Chinese rule, conveys that something very terrible is going on. And there is a growing sense of melancholy that the participants are beginning to recognize that their chances for success are dwindling. Toward the end of the documentary, COVID descends and the passage of the Hong Kong national security law becomes imminent. The conclusion features a masked activist proclaiming that the movement must continue, and that protesters “must hang in there.”
Do Not Split is perhaps best characterized as a strategic win composed entirely of tactical losses: while the film fails to educate its viewers in the nuanced dynamics leading up to the event — and entirely neglects the pro-China camp’s side of the story — Hammer succeeds in his obvious goal of riling viewers up by dramatizing how democracy is losing ground. And that is why I recommend seeing the movie, despite my reservations. Hammer does not appear to have any significant background in China: his traditional field of operation is Afghanistan and the Middle East. The first time that Hong Kong appears in his Twitter feed is September 2019. From that perspective, he lacks the skill set and connections to do the conflict real justice. But his documentary is still useful because it will doubtless spur viewers to take what is happening in Hong Kong as seriously as they should and, perhaps, learn more on their own. Do Not Split may be a flawed effort, but it is a valuable one, nevertheless.
Maxwell Olin Massa is a graduate of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center and currently works as a policy analyst in the DC area. In addition to having written on the rule of law, he is also a staff writer for Third Factor magazine and published House of Apollo, a novel of ideas, with Whiskey Tit Books in 2020. He was even a Chinese TV host for a year, once upon a time.