Review: Umbrella Diaries: The First Umbrella (2018)

Civil disobedience has always remained something of an enigma to our humble shores. Besides the occasional trifle which explodes into the media spotlight, few cases have ever escalated to a scale that could allow us to empathize with both the fiery passion and also dire consequences such acts bring about. It was thus with a dose of careful scepticism that I approached Umbrella Diaries: The First Umbrella, not least because I have been conditioned to view acts of civil disobedience as futile. I find the leaders at the helm to be surprisingly far less idealistic than I had imagined. Instead, they are the ones who had counted the cost and regularly elucidated this same cost to other eager comrades.

The first of a documentary series by filmmaker James Leong, who regularly shines the spotlight on political conflicts elsewhere around the world, Umbrella Diaries tracks the genesis of the Occupy Central movement, weaving together the different camps and  storylines to provide a comprehensive overview of the movement’s roots. The Occupy Central movement has certainly been the headliners of many films, and the presence of Umbrella Diaries inevitably lines up for scrutiny for what it brings to the table.

While there is most definitely a colouring of triumphant suffering à la French resistance, Leong also manages a humble exposition on the cracks within the movement and the mammoth task of not just organizing a resistance, but sustaining it.

Perhaps the most striking narrative lies in its portrayal of the simmering disunity amid the Hong Kong population. While the right to universal suffrage seems an attractive cause and the slogan of the movement, love and peace, a righteous strategy, it nonetheless manages to earn the ire of other citizens. What ensues is a scattered camp of diverging loyalties, almost Game of Thrones-like in the varying opinions and selective support each citizen accords the vying political entities. One citizen completely opposes the movement and goes so far as to cheerfully concede to China’s iron grip, another may support the student movement but recoil from association with Occupy Central, though both camps seem to champion the same cause of true democracy.

Then there are the police, a conflicted target of both outrage and sympathy. A recurring question rises to the fore throughout the film: how do they handle the teetering balance between diligently stewarding responsibilities and identifying with the collective indignation as a Hong Kong citizen themselves? Leong packs in organic interactions between public and personnel, but unfortunately limited access meant a scraping of the surface, invoking a sense that this thread was one least explored and could have benefited from greater inquiry.

One cannot help but applaud the tenacity of Leong and his team – the film is regularly interspersed with shaky, hand held footage, all a blur of colours and sounds that testify to the intensity on the ground. It is this veracity of the footage that perhaps lends the most credibility and hence sympathy to the people enduring tear gas and pepper spray each night, and thereby amplifies the heartache and helplessness in the face of less than ideal results.

In light of recent news where the nine leaders involved in Occupy Central have been convicted and now await their sentencing, the viewing of this documentary is made all the more relevant and potent. Amid spirited applause and loud whoops, one lone banner flutters across an overhead bridge, a cry that hopefully still rings in the hearts of Hong Kong citizens, one that will not be dulled by the long drought of seeming barrenness–do you hear the people sing?

SINdie conducted an interview with documentary filmmaker James Leong.

SINdie: How did the impetus to document the Occupy Central movement first come about?

James Leong: I was born in Hong Kong, and spent part of my upbringing here. In 2013, I came back to live in the city. The following year, it became clear that a clash was looming on the issue of political reform between Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp and the central government in Beijing. We didn’t know that it would become quite so large- scale and dramatic, but we had a sense something big was in the offing. So, my producer Lynn and I started following events for Al Jazeera, and ended up making a three-part series of current affairs documentaries for the channel. Because we followed the movement closely, and were on the ground for all the major events, there was a lot of historically significant footage that remained unseen. Thus, we decided to make a longer form documentary on the topic.

With such a major movement being the topic of many documentaries, how did you decide on the angle/framing to take on your film?

The idea is to create a kind of “living history” of the umbrella protests, to give the audience the experience of what it was like to be on the streets with the protestors. To some extent, it is sympathetic to the aims and the methods of the movement in the lead up to and at the start of the mass protests (in late September 2014). But there’s also an observational feel to the film. I often let shots run on, so that audiences can absorb what’s going on and hopefully make up their own minds as to how they feel.

The one thing that struck me was how the Occupy Central issue split the entire Hong Kong into divisive camps. Could you comment on the seeming split within the country? How did it affect your framing of the matter?

I think the divisions we see in Hong Kong today would have occurred even if the Umbrella Movement hadn’t happened. These divisions exist because we are an open, free-ish and sort-of-democratic city in an increasingly authoritarian country.

I would like to clarify an event in your film – the decision to occupy Civic Square seemed spontaneous, given that the students charged toward the venue in the middle of Joshua’s speech, though I was always under the impression from media outlets that it was a planned takeover. Could you clarify if it was indeed a spontaneous moment caught on camera or a planned takeover?

We didn’t know it at the time, but the students came up with the plan on the evening of that day. Lynn and I had just finished our dinner and were heading back down to the assembly - pausing to get a few shots from the overhead pedestrian bridge - when Joshua made the announcement. Actually, I was changing to long lens and missed it. Luckily Lynn was rolling!

One other viewpoint I found interesting in your film was the portrayal of the police – most strikingly I remember the young police officer who was asked if he was okay after enduring a series of insults from the public. I was wondering if you had attempted to interview any police personnel or considered telling a portion of the narrative from their perspective?

Actually, protestors weren’t insulting the police in the scene you mention. It was more like they were pleading with them, and also trying to shame them.  It would be really interesting to tell the story of the protests from the police’s point of view, but police wouldn’t talk to the camera. My guess is they wouldn’t be allowed to speak to media about the protests even now. So, all I could do is to include moments like the one you described, to give the audience some idea of how front-line police were feeling at the time.

Could you share more about your production process with us? What was the greatest difficulty in putting the film together?

It was hard keeping up with the scale of the protests, when many things could be happening in many different places at the same time. We had two cameras during most of filming, sometimes three, but it was still necessary to source for other footage. The tough part in editing was finding the right balance between explaining the history and politics, building the tense and sometimes chaotic street action into comprehensible scenes, and presenting the characters in a way that you can understand their motivations or at least how they feel.

On hindsight, now that the physical takeover by the Occupy Central movement has ended, do you think it changes the reading of your film? How would you determine the effectiveness of the movement given the continued unrelenting stance of China?

I think Hong Kong people are still processing their experiences of the movement. Many see it as a failure, because we haven’t seen any concessions from Beijing on electoral reform. But personally, I think it’s too early to tell.

I really liked how you included shaky footage in the documentary which gave a very real sense of grittiness. Could you share some of your on-the-ground experiences capturing footage while being at risk of the tear gas, pepper spray, etc? 

Almost all of it was shot hand-held, because things were moving so fast you couldn’t use a tripod. Hauling around a heavy camera and a backpack full of equipment, as well as mask and helmet (to protect against pepper spray, tear gas, etc) was tough, especially in the hot and humid summer months. But we did get very fit!

What can we look forward to in the next installations?

Part two will tell the story of the occupation itself. Broadly speaking, if part one is about idealism, part two is about reality hitting. It will likely be greyer and more nuanced, and include a more diverse range of voices. 

Umbrella Diaries: The First Umbrella will be screened as part of the 2019 Singapore Chinese Film Festival. You can catch the film on Friday, 19 April or Saturday, 20 April. More details here.

Written by Jessica Heng

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