Dissent and Civic Culture in the Early PostHandover Years

Hksmff and CDF were established during an eventful period when social and political activism started to prevail in post-handover Hong Kong. Hksmff first screened films on a few university campuses in October and November of 2003, shortly after the city had recovered from the attack of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which resulted in the loss of about 200 lives. The previous summer, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government had drafted a bill to legislate Article 23, an antisubversion article, into the city’s Basic Law.11 The local population took this as a direct threat to freedom of speech; consequently, on July 1, 2003, over half a million people marched in protest against this legislation.12 In the years that followed, a flurry of political activity erupted, initially around the first direct elections to the Hong Kong Legislative Council, then over the first local and nonpublic election of the SAR Chief Executive. Grassroots social movement groups that had emerged during the colonial era were increasingly vocal in opposition to the government’s neoliberal policies, and demonstration marches became frequent. Public debate at the time focused on whether Hong Kong’s political arrangements should prepare the city for further democratic reform or for convergence with a system that China would find acceptable.13 The July citywide demonstration in 2003 and the election activities of 2004-2008 period were captured by local independent documentary filmmakers, notably Tammy Cheung. In 2004, Cheung founded Visible Record as a nonprofit organization to host CDF and to distribute documentaries.14

Not surprisingly, documentary cinema became the defining medium for both hksmff and CDF. Since the late 1990s, Hong Kong documentary practitioners have developed ways to integrate expository, observational, and personal modes when representing local agency and marginal voices protesting various injustices. Following the anti-World Trade Organization (WTO) protests that took place in Hong Kong in December 2005, for example, documentary became the only form featured in the third hksmff program; films screened such as Her Anti-WTO and Our Heavy Yet Beautiful December combined observational and expository modes to depict local protests. The 2008 and 2009 CDF Special Section screenings carried Cheung’s July and Election. Both works are observational documentaries that focus on the citywide demonstrations and election campaigns of 2003 and 2008.

All the above suggests that these festivals raise consciousness and contribute to Hong Kong’s civic culture. While this is indeed true, it is necessary to unpack certain assumptions linked to this deduction. In The Dynamics of Social Movement in Hong Kong, for example, Stephen Chiu and Tai Lok Lui use “consciousness-raising” to describe social movements in the city that do not incite collective action by mass mobilization. Groups that have mobilized are said to have directly challenged the policies of the colonial administration before the 1997 handover, and to have openly criticized the SAR government afterwards.15 To say that these festivals are consciousness-raising thus distances them from opposition-based mobilization, aligning them with social movements that have agendas conducive to a “decolonisation without independence,” such as the environmental and gender awareness movements.16 Some might even argue that regardless of their agendas, as a result of receiving public funding from the Arts Development Council, CDF, and hksmff (and the latter’s partner organizations Video Power and v-artivist) have avoided taking part in any mobilization against the government.17

There is a problem, however, with this binary identification of some Hong Kong social movements as “consciousness-raising” and others as representing “direct social mobilization.” While social movements certainly aim at long term, structural transformation, many local social movements have also engaged in short-term mobilization. Gender awareness groups, for example, have engaged in direct action, a notable instance being the activism of the Hong Kong Women’s Coalition on Equal Opportunities. Members of the Coalition appeared in an August 2015 protest regarding the court conviction of a female protestor accused of using her breast to assault a policeman while alleging the latter of indecent assault. Male and female protestors outside the police station in Wanchai wore real or fake bras over bare backs or on top of T-shirts to call attention to the ludicrous verdict.18 Without drawing media attention, hksmff called for participation in the 2005 anti-WTO demonstration, and staged screenings that amounted to an open challenge to corporate spatial hegemony in Hong Kong’s Central District. To the extent that the festival practices discussed in this chapter consciously integrate knowing with doing, they do not fit neatly into the binary of consciousness-raising versus mobilization.19 Indeed, the young people who are active in the festivals’ post-screening discussions often mix critical and creative skills in the making of documentaries and in civic engagement.

Arguments for the value of both critical and creative skills abound in the West. During a period of public education budget cuts in the USA, Martha Nussbaum defended the humanities by saying that critical thinking, creativity, imagination, and the capacity to empathize are exactly what the arts and humanities can contribute to business activities and civic culture. Deficiencies in humanities training, on the other hand, can adversely affect the citizenry and a polity’s democratic future.20 Using the term “awareness economy,” Christophe Fricker argues instead for the

“epistemic and ethical guidance” that the arts, humanities, and social sciences can provide industry and business. Competence in handling ambiguity, developing arguments, and suggesting courses of action is essential in the twenty-first-century workplace.21 Whether in civic culture or just the business sector, cultivation of these talents requires resources. I suggest that the nonprofit hksmff and CDF are participatory opportunities to exercise creativity, critical thinking, and the capacity to empathize; and they support ethical perspectives unrestricted by national politics. These events outside the classroom take a bottom-up approach to building a civic culture that buttresses activism in the broadest sense. The critical and creative skills they cultivate can in turn identify blind spots in the education and business sectors that are important for any “awareness economy,” and in civic life. The distinctive ways in which each festival materializes these objectives are discussed in the sections below.

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