Hong Kong: City on Fire – an Interview with Producer Sinead Kirwan

'Hong Kong: City on Fire' (Dartmouth Films)
'Hong Kong: City on Fire' (Dartmouth Films)

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Hong Kong: City on Fire

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Sinead Kirwan is the producer of Hong Kong: City on Fire, a new documentary from ENEMY FILMS and the BFI, following four young protesters in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations. Based in Edinburgh, Kirwan also produces for ENEMY FILMS, a Scottish production company focused on international cinema documentaries and dramas.

You’ve produced documentaries on the 1984-1985 British Miners’ Strike, domestic violence against women in Turkey, and mental health with Scottish footballer Garry O’Connor. What brought you to the topic of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong?

I’m always looking for stories about people self-organising to create change or to tackle an issue, and I’m really interested in these big moments in history, how you get in there, and what’s actually going on underneath. The connection with the films about domestic violence in Turkey (Dying to Divorce) and the Miners’ Strike is putting the voice of ordinary people, trying to make a big change or defend themselves and their communities, at the forefront. Dying to Divorce actually sprung from a mass movement of protests that were happening in Turkey, and the individuals organising on the ground. We speak to a lawyer, who also organises press conferences and protests outside the court cases. So they’re trying this multi-layered thing to create change. 

When I saw what was happening in Hong Kong, I immediately contacted my friends who I knew lived there and through that connection, I was introduced to the filmmakers. And again, what really appealed to me was that it was filmmakers who were from Hong Kong, and they weren’t just focusing on one person who was a leader or one type of protester. It’s not just people throwing Molotov cocktails, but people organising sit-ins in their universities, doing all kinds of different things to try to defend the rights that they had at that time as well too.

City on Fire opens with scenes of crowds covered with umbrellas, but soon moves to street level, and closely follows the personal stories of four frontline protesters – Jan, AJ, Jennie, and Shing-Long. How did you meet them? Was it important to record history ‘from below’, rather than focusing on elite politics?

I had never met the contributors, I produced it all from Scotland, so my contact was with the filmmakers in Hong Kong. I was really interested in the minutia, and the everyday, because I think that is how social change happens. There was an enormous amount of creativity, like the way that people had learned really quickly to react to the police, and I find that really inspiring and hopeful because wow, people are incredibly good at adapting to different situations. Overall, the film is really difficult, but I think in the face of real violence, you see such strong personal connections between people and I think that’s particularly important in the world that we live in. When people are under pressure, obviously they can turn one way or another, but in a lot of cases they support each other, and that’s how they get through. 

I was really interested in seeing beyond young, masked men, because I knew from talking to people that a million people had marched on the streets. That shows that there’s a place for different kinds of people to join in pro-democracy movements. You don’t have to be young and fit and be able to run away really fast. You can support in different ways.

Definitely, the film really challenged my ideas about ‘the frontline’, which here is more ambiguous, something protesters move to and from like shift-work. The film also offers a historical panorama, from Hong Kong’s 1997 handover from British rule into Chinese administrative control, to the state’s controversial extradition bill in 2019. Did you learn anything surprising during the process?  

Hong Kong was a British colony, but we never really think of that, nor how the fight for democracy started whilst the British were in power because it was a British colony. It can seem distant, and it was a really stark learning curve for me, about how we (Britain) must claim somme responsibility for the situation because we treated Hong Kong like a property to be handed over from one power to another, and didn’t necessarily think about what was right for the people of Hong Kong. I think particularly now, as we reckon with post-colonial history and Black Lives Matter, we understand more that the British Empire has a lot to answer for in terms of ongoing issues. And this is probably the clearest, because it’s so recent. 

I also thought it was very powerful that the National Security Law came in so sneakily, and took everyone by surprise. It made me really think about the laws that are currently in the British courts and the House of Lords at the moment, the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill, which shares some very strong similarities with the Law in China.

Obviously, it’s not as extreme, but it did make me really think that you have to be so careful about these laws that just get passed before anyone has any time to think about them. When we see people being stopped or arrested in the street for holding a up a sign in the film, everyone’s always really shocked. But if the British Bill is passed, if you go outside with a megaphone or hold up a sign, you could technically be arrested for causing a disturbance.

You have to be vigilant. I think Hong Kong gives us a lesson that democracy is a thing that you have to fight for continuously. 

How does Chinese state policy in Hong Kong connect to China’s other political and strategic policies, including around surveillance systems, or foreign influence through the Belt and Road Initiative? 

Politically, a lot of people are wary of China, and sometimes that can slip into racism. I’m really against that because a lot of people in Hong Kong who are affected by this are also Chinese. They’re people who have escaped the mainland because they’ve been protesting for democracy in China. It’s better to think about the Chinese state or the CCP.

But we have to worry because this is also tied to their own political agenda, and we can’t rely on governments question these superpowers. We need to continue to support people from Hong Kong to come to the UK if they need to. We need to continue to speak out. For instance, when people from the Chinese embassy in Manchester came out and attacked a protester outside, there were no serious consequences. So what does that mean? Do we just turn a blind eye, when actually the CCP are doing things in the UK that are wrong and circumvent the democratic right to protest? 

Alongside hearing from high-profile Hong Kongers in the UK, including Simon Cheng and Nathan Law, films like Ai Weiwei’s Cockroach (2020) and Blue Island have brought great attention to the protests outside of Asia. What has been the role of art in the umbrella protests, both in Hong Kong and abroad? Is political/culture filling in the gap left by Western media coverage? 

Art and culture is vitally important, particularly when more direct forms of protests are under attack. Art is often a way for people to express themselves and retain their independence of mind. 

It also provides nuance, and a constant reminder. Hong Kong was in the news all the time, and then there was a global pandemic, and suddenly no-one heard anything about Hong Kong in two years. And we were worried about that, that the news stories had passed. Then we made a decision, that we are not telling a news story. We’re creating a record, a historical and cultural expression of what the protests are about. And art can create that legacy and that memory of things that happened. 

We can’t rely on current affairs to tell the story. Really good stories connect you to the characters and the individuals in a way that news just doesn’t.

Success in the context of filmmaking often means awards, but what do you hope this documentary will achieve? 

We have a very practical goal. There are now 120,000 estimated Hong Kongers living in the UK, that’s the second largest migrant group after Ukrainians. It’s a huge adjustment for people to make, and it’s often really hard to explain if you’ve been through this really mad process and you’re meeting people in the UK for the first time. You don’t want to lay out your whole history to someone. So we really hope that a lot of people from the UK can come and see this film with their Hong Kong friends, and they can understand by watching one film, that that was why they had to leave. 

It can also start a dialogue, and be a jumping-off point where instead of having to give a potted history of Hong Kong to someone, you can say, I’d really like to show you this film, and it’ll give you a sense of what we were up against and what happens.

As I mentioned, this film is also about creating a record. They always say history is written by the victors, and who controls the past controls the future. But documentaries have a real role in making sure that not only the people who win get to tell their story. Even though the protests haven’t thus far been successful, they’re not going be erased from memory. That, for us, is a real success, if we can create records so that Hong Kongers in ten years time who have had no direct contact with the protest now might be able to look back. 

Hong Kong: City on Fire, and a virtual Q&A with Sinead Kirwan and activist, Fermi Wong, runs for one night only in Odeon cinemas across the UK on 22 November 2022.

With thanks to Jelena Sofronijevic for this interview; Jelena is an audio producer and freelance journalist, who makes content at the intersections of intercultural political history and the arts. They are the producer of EMPIRE LINES, a podcast which uncovers the unexpected flows of Empires through artworks.

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