Before the COVID pandemic swept into our lives in early 2020 and bumped every other story off the front page, the biggest news story in the world was the pro-democracy protests that were taking place in Hong Kong. Instigated by a controversial extradition bill, that could see criminal suspects being extradited to mainland China, opponents feared this would lead to unfair trials, cover ups, violence, and critics of China (such as journalists and activists) being targeted and disappearing into the system.
The people of Hong Kong stood against this, and more than two million people marched in protest against the proposed bill. But as the Hong Kong government failed to budge, the protests continued for months. The tactics of the police became more heavy handed, and violence soon escalated. Jennifer Ngo’s urgent and compelling documentary ‘Faceless’ takes us beyond the headlines and onto the front line to meet the unbelievably brave people putting their lives on the line to protect their way of life.
The film introduces us to four individuals, and we experience the riots and the socio-political turmoil through their eyes. Each of them is anonymous, or ‘faceless’, seen only in the non-official garb of the protestors: black hoodies and masks to protect their identities. ‘The Student’ is a college age young man. His parents wanted him to stay away from politics and live a simple and successful life, but his love for Hong Kong has seen him become an impassioned political activist, capturing much of the footage we see in the film via the GoPro camera affixed to his helmet.
‘The Artist’ is a young lesbian, who sees what the erosion of freedom in Hong Kong could do to the LGBTQ+ community. She creates posters and street art depicting the shocking violence perpetrated by the police during the marches. ‘The Believer’ is a religious man whose experiences on the front lines of the civil disobedience cause him to have a crisis of faith. Can non-violent protest really work in the face of such narrow-minded brutality?
Finally, there is ‘The Daughter’ who arguably has the most emotional story of the four. As the daughter of a police officer, her belief system is politically and ideologically opposite to that of her father. Her story shows the human cost of this conflict beyond the violence, through the personal and emotional trauma she endures as her family is torn apart.
Combining interviews, news reportage, and harrowing footage from the protests revealing some of the shocking violence that didn’t make it onto the news over here, Ngo’s film captures the inspiring and unwavering dedication to fighting for what is right in the face of staggering brutality and intransigence from the Hong Kong government. She also sets the scene for how all this started, by charting the erosion of trust between the people and the government that has slowly been happening since the UK-China handover, due to the creeping authoritarianism from mainland China.
In between the broader geo-political picture and violent clashes, the film also captures terrific smaller details. From the scenes of them preparing for the marches, with their cycling helmets and skateboard elbow pads to protect them from the militarised police, to the quiet moments of protestors having a meal together. They don’t know each other’s names because they know it is unsafe to share such details, but they ensure they sit down together and eat. Where families at home have been fractured by political ideals, new bonds and brotherhoods are formed.
‘Faceless’ is a thoroughly engrossing piece of work, and essential viewing. You don’t need prior knowledge on the situation in Hong Kong, as Ngo sketches the background in broad, clear strokes, but it is in the smaller, human moments when the film really shines. The commitment shown by these young men and women is astonishing, and the film doesn’t hold back in portraying how much the odds are stacked against them. As one of them notes, “the movement is like throwing eggs at a wall.” Ngo attempts to end on a note of hope and positivity, but it rings hollow after everything we’ve seen.