Hong Kong to Begin Politically Censoring Films

Hong Kong’s film censors have been instructed to begin censoring films on national security grounds, making the city’s vaunted film industry the latest victim of spreading political censorship under the Hong Kong National Security Law. On Friday, an amendment to the film censorship ordinance means official censors are required to “be vigilant to the portrayal, depiction, or treatment of any act or activity which may amount to an offense endangering national security.” South China Morning Post’s Kanis Leung and Phila Siu reported on the details of the new censorship guidelines:

Under the current framework applying to the Film Censorship Authority, a panel of 40 members appointed by the chief executive reviews submissions and assigns them a classification for viewing based on depictions of sex, violence, crime or any insult to race or religion, among other concerns. A group of 300 laypeople helps to advise the panel on forming its views.

[…] Depictions of violent acts that might amount to an offence under the security law or cause serious disruption to public order, such as rioting, arson or criminal damage, should not be permitted in a film if showing them could encourage or incite copycats.

Censors must also take into consideration the level of detail and length of the acts portrayed, as well as whether the depictions were based on real life or amounted to a biased viewpoint.

Key criteria going forward would be whether the film “explicitly or implicitly encourages or suggests” the audience might follow the crimes shown on screen and if the piece had a “reasonably apparent” intention to incite viewers to commit the acts. [Source]

The new guidelines’ effects were immediately felt on Friday:

For most of Hong Kong’s film industry and major Hollywood studios, the new guidelines should not come as a surprise. As mainland Chinese filmgoers have become increasingly important for production houses’ bottom lines, producers have over time learned to adapt their movies to be palatable to mainland Chinese censors. But one group likely to be deeply affected are local documentarians, several of whom have won top awards for films on the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests. The New York Times’ Raymond Zhong reported on the threat posed by the new guidelines to those filmmakers’ work:

So while few in the local movie industry said they felt caught totally off guard by the new censorship guidelines issued Friday, they still expressed concern that the sweeping scope of the rules would affect not just which movies are screened in Hong Kong, but also how they get produced and whether they get made at all.

“How do you raise funds?” asked Evans Chan, a filmmaker who has faced problems screening his work in the city. “Can you openly crowdsource and say that this is a film about certain points of view, certain activities?”

[…] The new censorship guidelines announced Friday seem directed in part at one specific kind of movie. They say censors should give extra scrutiny to any film that “purports to be a documentary” or to report on “real events with immediate connection to the circumstances in Hong Kong.”

[…] A short documentary about the 2019 protests, “Do Not Split,” was nominated for an Academy Award this year, raising global awareness about China’s crackdown in the city. (The film’s nomination may have played a role in Hong Kong broadcasters’ deciding not to air the Oscar broadcast this year for the first time in decades, although one station called it a commercial decision.) [Source]

“Do Not Split” is available in full on YouTube for public viewing.

Another documentary about the protests, “Inside the Red Brick Wall,” was pulled from cinemas in Hong Kong at the last minute earlier this year. It has won awards internationally and is being circulated at film festivals around the world.

Censoring films that “purport to be documentaries” is one way that the Hong Kong government is trying to control the narrative about the 2019 protests. Under new government-appointed leadership, the city’s public broadcaster RTHK has deleted documentaries and all other content older than one year from the internet, and refused to accept awards for its previous investigative reporting into police misconduct.

Other films, including one featuring depictions of police corruption–a staple of Hong Kong-style “cops and robbers” films–have inexplicably been pulled in recent months as well.

While the new rules target film producers first and foremost, viewers might be the next target. In early February, Hong Kong University (HKU) administrators attempted to prevent the university’s student union from airing “Lost in the Fumes,” a documentary about jailed pro-independence student activist Edward Leung. Leung coined the phrase “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” which subsequently became ubiquitous during the 2019-2020 protests.

The student union ultimately went ahead with the screening after blocking out the windows to their auditorium with black trash bags. Then, in April, HKU cut off the student union altogether, preventing it from using the university’s facilities and cutting off its access to financial services. The university accused the group of spreading “propaganda.”


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