With a running time of around one-third of the numerous feature docs that have attempted to make sense of the escalating authoritarian developments plaguing Hong Kong in recent years, Anders Hammer’s searing short Do Not Split gets farther than most. Both precise and concise – and with breakneck-speed editing and tense techno beats that make the life and death stakes utterly visceral – the recent Oscar-shortlisted film is a deep dive inside the 2019 youth-led protests. The veteran Norwegian director weaves in and out, from the harrowing frontlines to behind the scenes, alongside the teens and twenty-somethings whose masked (often gas-masked) baby faces belie a collectively steadfast warrior spirit ready to sacrifice all for the democracy cause.
Do Not Split (its title a reference to standing together physically, and perhaps philosophically) begins with a brilliant opening sequence set in October 2019 where Hammer’s camera keeps pace with a ragtag band of youth struggling to simply locate the Bank of China. The madcap antics soon give way, however, to a swift and serious torching of said financial institution. Behind a roving lens that mirrors the asymmetrical warfare playing out on the city streets, Hammer soon becomes privy to a multitude of innovative tactics – not just the use of tear gas-shielding umbrellas (those ubiquitous images broadcast around the globe), but also to the less sensational, though equally utilitarian, such as the adoption of Telegram to warn comrades as to where cops are stationed. He captures enraged, pro-China demonstrators as they face off against the pro-democracy camp, with taunts and screams of «Remove the mask!» (once the pandemic hit, this demand, in hindsight, would appear as wrongheaded as their conviction). To which a brave male activist responds, «I’m wearing a mask because I’m free to do it! And you are here because you have freedom in Hong Kong» (out of the mouths of babes).
Both precise and …the recent Oscar-shortlisted film is a deep dive inside the 2019 youth-led protests.
A scruffy hipster sporting a Che Guevara t-shirt seems uncannily chill while militarized police lay siege to his university. He even narrates events with a preternatural calm as firebombs explode in the near distance. A female leader appears similarly resigned to her fate, explaining that she’s now set aside any plans for a teaching career – her political activism having rendered her persona non grata in civil society. And still, she is «more determined to be sacrificing,» as she bluntly states.
At one point a male freedom fighter simply laments, «the British handed us over to China like a bag of potatoes.» The words should serve as a sharp slap in the face to those of us in smug western societies rooting for this generation of change-makers now facing life imprisonment a world away. It’s one thing to cheer on a righteous cause playing out on our computer screens, to cry foul at a slide into dictatorship as we pat ourselves on our strong «enlightened» backs. It’s quite another to admit your complicity in this ongoing proto-authoritarian nightmare. For lest we forget, Hong Kong – like the vast majority of nations that continue to battle for basic freedom every waking day – was never, of course, really free. Nor are existential crises ever conjured up in a vacuum. And they certainly cannot be solved solely by heroic, social media-savvy high schoolers and college kids burdened with a debt they never should have had to pay.