Kiwi Chow's film cannot be named in Hong Kong. But Revolution of Our Times is empowering the diaspora in Australia
As the beating of drums echoed through a cinema in Sydney, almost the entire audience, from the grey-haired man with a walking stick at the front to the teenager at the back, rose and sang the song that is now illegal in Hong Kong.
They had gathered for a screening of Revolution of Our Times, a documentary about the mass protests that gripped the city in 2019.
It takes its name from the political slogan that took hold at the time: "Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times."
But under Hong Kong's National Security Law, saying the phrase — and now this film's title — out loud is viewed as inciting secession, an offence that carries a nine-year jail term.
Besides its name, the film has been clouded by Chinese political pressure since its debut.
In July 2021, the film premiered on the last day of the Cannes Film Festival. It was only announced one day before the screening, as the host feared it would spark a backlash from Beijing.
Hong Kong passed a new film censorship law in October last year forbidding films that could violate the national security law, meaning publicly screening the film in the city was officially banned.
But outside Hong Kong, global audiences are filling theatres to watch the documentary.
Since April 1, the Hong Kong diaspora has been hosting private screenings in 23 countries including Australia, New Zealand, the United States, the United Kingdom and across Europe.
In Australia, nearly 10,000 people attended 53 screenings in Sydney, Melbourne, Cairns, Adelaide, Canberra, Brisbane, Perth, Moonah and Townsville during the three-week event.
Tickets sold out within 30 minutes of pre-sale opening, and organisers had to announce extra screenings to meet the huge demand.
As protest banners, yellow helmets and tear gas appeared on-screen, many in the audience shed tears.
The emotional weight of the film is not lost on director Kiwi Chow.
The 43-year-old, who still lives and works in Hong Kong, is keenly aware of the personal risks he has taken on by producing and releasing his documentary.
He has deleted all files related to the movie, and he occasionally dreams of being imprisoned.
"I've prepared for the risks [of being arrested]," he told ABC News.
Hong Kong's murky law invites self-censorship and fear
Chow began making the documentary at a time when Hong Kong journalists, filmmakers, writers and artists were shackled by the fear of committing "word crimes".
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Hong Kong plunged to 148 among 180 countries and regions in its 2022 ranking of world press freedoms, a significant drop from 18th just two decades ago.
RSF describes Hong Kong's national security law, launched in 2020 in response to the mass pro-democracy protests, as "a pretext to gag independent voices", and warns its ambiguous phrasing could see it applied to any journalist covering Hong Kong, "regardless of their location".
Revolution of Our Times is not the only documentary effectively banned under Hong Kong's contentious laws.
"Part of what makes the national security law so effective is that there are some red lines, but there's also a lot of grey area," Thomas E Kellogg, executive director of the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University, said.
Chow said he "considered for a long while" before deciding to take the risk of making his film and using the controversial slogan for its title.
"From an [artistic] perspective, I think 'Revolution of Our Times' as a name can reflect the film itself. The film talks about the causes and consequences of the movement, so using part of the slogan as the film title, this is reasonable," he said.
He also wanted to use the name to send a message.
"Nowadays society doesn't allow you to say [Revolution of Our Times]," he said.
"I think it's becoming more necessary that we say it aloud," he said.
"When society tries to silence you and fill you with fear, my act of making Revolution of Our Times the title creates a new energy, namely, bravery and dissidence."
A filmmaker who pursues social justice
Before Revolution of Our Times, Chow co-directed Ten Years in 2015, another controversial political film that explored the future of human rights and social justice in Hong Kong as Beijing was tightening its grip on the city.
His second film, Beyond The Dream, a romantic drama about the daily challenges of living with mental illness, was among the top 10 best-selling movies at the Hong Kong box office the year that COVID-19 devastated the industry.
"For a long time, I always wanted to be closer to those who are suffering," Chow said.
"I want to know and learn more about them, and even speak up for them."
In Revolution of Our Times, Chow has put protesters fighting for political freedom at the centre.
Scenes are filled with the familiar yellow helmets and gas masks. Activists are seen making and throwing Molotov cocktails at police, while fully armed police shoot a teenage protester.
In one scene, a mother wearing a backpack stands in front of a group of police holding bulletproof shields and helmets, crying: "I don't want this to become the next Tiananmen Square!"
Chow also included prominent pro-democracy politicians and activists, many of whom are now either in prison or have left Hong Kong in fear of prosecution.
"When I watched it, I felt as if a generation [had] passed, as if I was back to Hong Kong, back to the time when there was still space for people to protest on the street," said Ted Hui, a Hong Kong legislator-in-exile who now lives in Adelaide.
"It felt like a long time ago."
Chow also closely followed a protester nicknamed Snake who was at the Polytechnic University during an intense siege between police and protesters in November 2019.
As police surrounded the university and protesters tried to escape, Snake decided to stay and fight till the last minute.
"When I decided to dash out, I had to strip away my identity, as a student, as the son of my parents," he said.
"At that moment, I had only one identity. Even if I had to sacrifice my life, I dash out as a protester.
"The revolution of our times is not only for Hong Kong."
Chow said every time he listened to this part of Snake's interview during production, he would become tearful. He included the grab in the film's trailer.
"His words about his perseverance and determination are powerful, and he indeed kept his words, under my witness," Chow said.
A film that empowers traumatised Hongkongers
Chow's motivation for making the film was not only to record the stories of the protesters, but also to heal the collective trauma that Hongkongers have suffered since 2019.
During the political turmoil, at least four young people took their own lives. It also sparked a new migration wave, with government data showing that more than 27,000 Hong Kong residents left the city in 2021.
Chiu Wan, a notable citizen journalist, compared the city's tumultuous transformation to the sinking of the Titanic. He describes Chow as "the violinist on the Titanic", determined to stay in the city and "comfort everyone".
In Australia, many audiences have found power from the movie.
Sica, a 33-year-old Hong Kong migrant who asked to remain anonymous due to safety concerns, arrived in Sydney a year ago, having fled over fear of the National Security Law.
"I already started crying at the fifth minute of the film," she told ABC News.
"I almost lost my voice because of the crying."
Sica noticed the wide age range of the audiences, from elderly people to parents with teenage children.
"I think the film can help Hong Kong-Australians who were not in the city during 2019 to understand more about what happened."
Jane Poon, a leader of community group Australia-Hong Kong Link who helped organise the Sydney screening, said the documentary had brought people together in unexpected ways.
"We didn't expect there would be such an effect at all before the screening."
Ms Poon's group and other Hong Kong community organisations are approaching Australian cinemas in the hopes there could be a public showcase of the film in Australia one day.
For Chow, he is both pleased and surprised to see how the film has empowered audiences across the seas.
"I hope this could motivate people to continue moving forward — whether we are in Hong Kong or overseas, we will continue to speak up for social justice and resist fear," he said.