Interviewed by Aleksha McLoughlin and Nadia Leigh-Hewitson, BA Journalism Falmouth University
In 2019, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong saw over 10,000 arrests and more than 2,500 people injured. Following five young frontline protesters, Robin Barnwell and Fai Wan’s film Battle for Hong Kong documented their lives as clashes with police and government intensified. Both filmmakers are finalists in this year’s Sony Impact Award for Current Affairs at the Rory Peck Awards.
The protests quickly became a focus for anti-Beijing feeling, escalating in size – and the state deployed force in response. Barnwell and Wan recorded how young protesters were caught up in street skirmishes, facing rubber bullets, tear gas and live rounds fired by police into crowds of demonstrators.
Risking imprisonment and, in some cases, their lives, the film’s central characters were determined to continue their struggle against Hong Kong’s government. The film’s access to these protesters gave a unique insight into what motivated them.
“We realised just how desperate these people were and what they feared losing,” said Barnwell. A former diplomat-turned-journalist, he has directed over 50 documentary films focusing on human rights issues and societies in conflict, from the women’s rights movement in Iran to violent right-wing extremism in Germany.
As demonstrations continued over many months in Hong Kong, clashes with police became increasingly violent. Barnwell and Wan’s footage conveys how frightening the territory’s new, turbulent reality felt.
“When I was growing up, Hong Kong was a place for people to go to become refugees, and now people are fleeing Hong Kong to escape Communist China,” reflected Barnwell.
The system of ‘one country, two systems’, established when the UK handed over Hong Kong, is set to end in 2047, with the possibility that this will bring the territory fully under Beijing’s control.