A Hong Kong regulatory body has been accused of “coercing” filmmakers into adding warnings to two documentaries on last year’s anti-government protests saying that some acts depicted in the films “might constitute criminal offences”, prompting concerns that the purportedly arbitrary requirement could have a chilling effect on local productions.
Vincent Tsui Wan-shun, artistic director of Ying E Chi Cinema, a local non-profit arts group that distributed the independent documentaries, said the warnings – described by industry veterans as “unprecedented” in the Hong Kong movie industry – were among the obstacles thrown up by the Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration (OFNAA) in an effort to bar them from screening the films.
After rounds of exchanges with the film classification authority, Tsui said his organisation compromised by adding the warnings to the two documentaries, only for OFNAA to then insist they not reveal the messages came from the authorities. The body also rated one of the films “adult only” just two hours before it was set to be shown.
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“They forced us to add something against our will into our work, while forbidding us from attributing it to them,” Tsui told the Post on Tuesday, a day after the films screened at the Hong Kong Arts Centre on Monday night. “It’d be very problematic if the audience misunderstood and thought the warnings were from the filmmakers.”
At the centre of the controversy are two documentaries directed by anonymous filmmakers about major clashes between anti-government protesters and police last year: Inside the Red Brick Wall, which captured last November’s siege of the Polytechnic University (PolyU) campus, and Taking Back the Legislature, centred on the storming of the Legislative Council building on July 1, 2019.
The distributor of the two documentaries expressed “strong discontent” via its Facebook page on Monday night about the last-minute classification of its PolyU film as Category III – suitable only for persons aged 18 or above – two hours before its 7.45pm screening.
The group also apologised to those under 18 who bought the tickets, as they were forced to arrange immediate refunds.
Under the Film Censorship Ordinance, a film intended for exhibition in Hong Kong at any public place must be submitted to OFNAA for prior approval. However, there is no provision under the ordinance allowing for a censor to require a distributor to issue any warning about a film other than it being “not suitable for children or young persons”.
Nonetheless, the regulatory agency requested the film distributor add warnings at the beginning of both films reading “some of these depictions or acts might constitute criminal offences under prevailing laws” half a month after the group had applied for a Certificate of Approval for both documentaries in mid-July, according to Ying E Chi Cinema.
The group added they were also asked to add the line “some of the content or commentaries in the film may be unverified or misleading” to the PolyU film.
The filmmakers’ group said it initially declined to add the messages, as they “did not reflect the views of the director and the production team”, but the office responded that its administrative procedures might be lengthened by the refusal.
The filmmakers eventually compromised by submitting a version on September 3 with the requested warnings, with the additional note that the warnings had come from OFNAA.
On Friday, three days before the scheduled screenings, the office told the group they could not attribute the warnings to them and requested amendments, the arts group said. The authorities only approved the screenings two hours beforehand – after the filmmakers had removed the attribution – and at the same time classified the PolyU documentary as an adults-only film.
Ying E Chi Cinema, founded by independent filmmakers, is financially supported by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and has been screening local productions since 1997.
Under the Film Censorship Ordinance, a film may be considered as depicting offensive behaviour if it glorifies the commission of a crime. The filmmakers, however, insisted that they strived to capture every social movement objectively.
“At least they should tell us which parts of the film were regarded as offensive, so that we could consider trimming that out to meet the classification requirements. But they said nothing at all,” Tsui said, demanding an explanation from OFNAA.
An independent filmmaker of more than 30 years, Tsui added that the search for commercial cinemas to screen the two political films had met with unprecedented difficulties after the imposition of the Beijing-drafted national security law, which came into effect on June 30.
Tenky Tin Kai-man, chairman of the executive committee of the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers, described warnings of the kind demanded by OFNAA as “unprecedented” in the local movie industry, and worried that the lack of clear guidelines on their use could have a chilling effect on local productions.
“So many films involve shooting, killings and all kinds of illegal acts. Are filmmakers required to add warnings from now on?” he said. “We won’t be confident to make films freely without proper explanations from the authorities.”
He said even if warnings were made mandatory, they must be attributed to the authorities to avoid confusion.
An OFNAA spokeswoman, meanwhile, maintained the office had handled the two films in accordance with regulations, and that the applicants for certificates were notified of the need to add the warning, with the films then rated IIB and III, respectively, as early as the first week of August.
She also explained the reasoning behind the classifications, but did not mention why OFNAA forbade the film distributor from attributing the warnings to them.
“In addition to frequent foul language, the two films documented serious crimes in detail. There were even scenes of teenagers using destructive weapons,” the spokeswoman said.
“Inspectors believed that the applicant must issue a notice to the audience to prevent them from imitating the behaviour depicted in the films, or being misled.”