Thursday, May 13, 2021

Inside the Red Brick Wall takes viewers into the heart of the PolyU siege (Film review)

The university that's the primary locale of this documentary film

Inside the Red Brick Wall (Hong Kong, 2020)
- Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers
At the Oscars this year, a film about the extradition bill protests was among the nominees for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject.  Apparently because of Do Not Split's Oscar nomination, the Academy Awards ceremony was not broadcast on Hong Kong TV for the first time in 52 years.  As it turned out, Anders Hammer's short film did not win an Oscar.  This outcome didn't surprise or disappoint me because, weeks earlier, I had viewed but was not impressed by it; feeling that it was akin to protest porn since it appeared to be more about dramatic visuals than anything else.  
And now, after having also viewed Inside the Red Brick Wall, I'm actually more disappointed that this 2020 winner of the Hong Kong Film Critics Society prize for Best Film has not received greater international recognition than Do Not Split.  (Not only did this feature length offering by the Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers collective not get any Oscar recognition but it also was rejected by film festivals such as Sundance.  Still, it has been on the program of the 2020 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) -- and came away with that fest's Best Editing prize -- and shared the 2021 Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival's Grand Prize with Taking Back the Legislature, another Hong Kong extradition bill protest film by the collective.)
A technically accomplished work, Inside the Red Brick Wall does not only boasts visuals that are eye-catching, it also tells a story that is compelling and involving -- and, for someone emotionally invested in Hong Kong, heartbreaking.  On International Students Day 2019, days after the Chinese University of Hong Kong had become a smoke-and-tear gas-filled battleground between pro-democracy protestors and the Hong Kong police, what turned out to be a 13 day siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) began.  
Viewing this film transported me back to that time which actually wasn't that long ago but can seem like a lifetime away, given that so much has happened in Hong Kong since then (including the introduction of China's security law for Hong Kong and the still very much on-going Wuhan coronavirus pandemic).  It also took me inside the red brick walls of the PolyU campus to see what was going on in that besieged space whose occupants first sought to defend against police incursion, then increasingly desperately tried to escape from.  
I'm not sure how many members of the Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers collective were inside PolyU during the siege but the footage they managed to shoot within that space and time period looks to be incredibly extensive.  Often, the view one gets is from right within the heart of the action or damn well close to it -- despite how dangerous a position this was.  We're talking, after all, not only about a situation in which tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons spraying water dyed blue and mixed with chemicals and sound cannons were employed for days and nights on end by the police against the protestors who were brandishing umbrellas, bricks and molotov cocktails but also one where attempted flights to freedom ended with a good number of police officers grabbing, apprehending and brutally clubbing the individuals they had managed to get their hands on.              
As anyone who has taken part in a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong in recent years can and will expect, the police don't come off well in this documentary work.  (In addition to the police brutality against protestors, there also is at least one scene showing police hostility against journalists and visuals of their arresting medics as well as members of the press.)  I think the authorities and their pro-Beijing comrades know this too even without viewing Inside the Red Brick Wall.  Hence their doing what they can to ensure that it does not get screened in Hong Kong.     
Perhaps even more potently, a viewing of this film will have people feeling and caring for the individuals who found themselves stuck inside the red brick walls of PolyU for days on end.  You really get a profound sense of the emotional turbulence and psychological strain they underwent as well as the physical hardship and pain.  In addition, the filmed scenes of the debates, discussions and conversations that took place -- including but not exclusively about whether to stay and carry on, or call it a day for the time being and bid to return home -- often reveals the idealism and care for the community that many, if not all, of the protestors possessed.   

In some ways, what's the most painful thing to discover when viewing Inside the Red Brick Wall is how certain of the youthful protestors -- and remember that many of the protestors at PolyU were students and some of them were under 18 years of age -- were, even many days into the siege, far more clear thinking than, say, the group of head teachers who went onto the campus to get the younger protestors to surrender themselves to the police.  For example, when told by the head teachers that those who left with them would not be arrested, "only" have their photo taken and personal information recorded, and be able to return home that day, one protestor asked, "And what of tomorrow?"  To which the head teachers had to acknowledge that they didn't know the answer to that question.   
Viewing this documentary one and half years on and knowing what has happened since then (e.g., arrests related to the PolyU siege still taking place as recently as last week), one knows that the fears of the protestors were justified.  Something the viewer(s) also know: that the PolyU siege did not turn out well for the protest as a whole as well as individual protestors.  Consequently, I found myself tearing up -- and not for the only time while viewing Inside the Red Brick Wall -- when a protestor inside the university is recorded as stating that, "If we win, this will be our biggest victory."      

My rating for this film: 9.0

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