Freedom Film Festival 2014 – Film Review

The May 13 Generation

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The day is 2 June 1954. About 800 Chinese middle school students occupy Chinese High School (renamed Hwa Chong Institution in 2005) on Bukit Timah Road. The students are fighting for exemption for 125 fellow students who refuse to register for National Service under the British colonial government as they have not yet completed their studies. The 20-minute film depicts the three-week occupation of the school which ends on a victorious note for the students after the Ministry of Defence agrees to postpone the enlistment of all students of call-up age.

The polished production is one of Jason Soo’s first forays into the exhilarating yet hazardous world of filmmaking. It is an ambitious project because with a small budget, the director has to paint a broad historical sweep of an important period of Singapore’s political development, whose impact reverberates throughout Singapore’s post-independent days.

Soo decided to shine the light on the daily activities of the students during those three momentous weeks: singing, classroom learning and drama performance. He succeeds, without sentimentalism, in exuding the youthful passion and idealism of the middle school students in colonial Singapore who were fighting for not only exemption from National Service but also the larger goal of independence, though it was not articulated as such in the film. To a large extent, the young but experienced cast helps to endear the audience to the film even though many of the actors had little knowledge of the Chinese middle school student movement before the casting auditions.

As the film is essentially a mood piece, the audience is left to piece together the wider context of the Occupy Chinese High episode. This reviewer thinks that the scriptwriter/director could have selected a set piece that might better ignite the spirit of the time. An example would be a late-night discussion that turns into a fierce argument among the student leaders in face of the tactical as well as existential manoeuvrings with family, the school board of directors, agent provocateurs and the omnipresent police. This scenario could draw out the hopes and fears, desires and apprehensions of the characters. Such a scene might work better thematically and dramatically than the comic re-enactment of the court trial of the four students charged for protesting outside the Governor’s House against national conscription.

The 21-day occupation of Chinese High in 1954 was a precursor to the resuscitation of the left-wing student and trade movements that were clamped down with the imposition of the Emergency in 1948. The film, however, only hints at the pivotal role played by the Chinese middle school students in the subsequent formation of the then left-wing People’s Action Party (PAP) in November that year and the party’s resounding victory in the 1959 general election. Similarly, the film darkly alludes to the betrayal by the Lee Kuan Yew-led PAP of its socialist democratic cause, with the ending title: The monkeys departed. The wolves are here …

It is hoped that The May 13 Generation has whetted the audience’s appetite for a full-length feature film that gives another reading of our anti-colonial history which has often been described ad nauseum in the official narrative as a “fight against the Communists”.

The short film could not have been screened at a more appropriate time. This year, 2014, marks the 60th  anniversary of the 1954 students’ protest against national conscription and the subsequent occupation of Chung Cheng High and then Chinese High. The presentation of The May 13 Generation at the Freedom Film Festival in November also coincided with the intrepid students and residents of Hong Kong occupying Admiralty, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay. The starkness of the comparison cannot be lost on even the most casual of observers. That we have only something that happened 60 years ago to show for is a sad reminder of how effectively the PAP government has sapped away our spirit and replaced it with only material yearnings.

Lessons in Dissent   

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Premiered in April 2014, Lessons in Dissent gains currency once more in recent months due to the headline-grabbing 75-day (at the time of writing) occupation of business districts in Hong Kong, led by students from universities and high schools. The 97-minute documentary juxtaposes the words and deeds of two young activists: Joshua Wong and Ma Jai. Both are in their teens and are passionate about their cause to fight for greater democracy in Hong Kong. The similarities end there.

Joshua Wong’s spunky protest against the Moral and National Education curriculum in 2012 has catapulted him to the international limelight as well as earned him the odium from the Chinese government. The Occupy movement to fight for genuine universal suffrage has put the Scholarism leader on the cover of Time magazine while at the same time got him labelled as an “extremist” by China’s state-run media.

In contrast, Ma Jai quit school to devote his young life to the work of the left-wing League of Social Democrats (LSD). The self-effacing Ma toils behind the scenes in social movements against issues that affect the lives of ordinary Hong Kong people. His quiet persistence sees him in protests against the government’s plan in 2009 to build a high-speed railway line to mainland China; the annual June 4th march to the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the HKSAR; campaigns against small-circle election of the Chief Executive; the anti-Moral and National Education movement; and in the 2012 Legislative Council election campaign for LSD candidate, Avery Ng.

The most obvious lesson for activists in the audience to take away is to have the mainstream media on your side. Ma notes that Wong shot to prominence when he was interviewed by the media as the convenor of Scholarism, and his answers were logical and well structured. The interview went viral on Youtube, receiving over 170,000 views in seven days. Social media adds impetus to Hong Kong’s free-wheeling mainstream media . Scholarism was formed during the proposal to implement the Moral and National Education programme in secondary schools. Students met on Facebook and decided to do something.

Ma observes that Wong’s way in civil society is to become famous through the mainstream media so that people would listen to what he says. Wong himself is only too conscious of his exalted status as the voice of a generation. ” I hope people can get from my words and actions the meaning of perseverance. That everyone can care about society and be a true citizen of society.”

While Ma does not disagree with Wong’s approach, he argues that the real battle is to develop a mature and politicised civil society and not events like the protest outside the Government HQ that attracted 100,000 people to call for the withdrawal of the Moral and National Education curriculum.

“They were waiting for the next Joshua Wong to lead them. If there is no increase of awareness about society, then, I don’t think it means much.”

Another lesson the film seems to advocate is that you can participate in a civil disobedience movement in a peaceful, rational and non-violent manner. Every year, the LSD has taken part in the candlelight vigil for victims of the June 4th Tiananmen massacre until they think that mourning for the dead could not achieve much and liken it to consumption of June 4th feelings. They decide to do more and that is when Ma and Avery Ng lead a march without a police permit to the Liaison Office to demand that the Chinese government account for its action. They reckon that the law protects the status quo and prevents progress, and as such is not worth respecting.

“The point of activism is promotion, education and raising awareness. It is the process of being politicised,” Ma says in the film. He adds prophetically, “More Hong Kong people are ready to accept more radical approaches such as pushing the barricades or blocking the road.”

Lessons in Dissent tries to provide a smorgasbord of maxims of organising social movements. Which ones to pick depends on your own sensibilities and vision for society.

Wukan, the Flame of Democracy

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Wukan, the Flame of Democracy sounds the warning bell that democracy is no guarantee of social justice. But unlike the aftermath we see of the Arab Spring where free elections ushered in more or less old wine in new bottle, Wukan shows us that while the struggle for democracy is a long and hard one, the road to righting the wrongs suffered under the old regime is even longer and harder.

Singapore’s filmmaking duo, James Leong and Lynn Lee, made this 97-minute documentary about how the villagers of Wukan, a village in the Chinese province of Guangdong, expel their corrupt local Communist government and elect their own village committee, an exploit not seen for over four decades. Weeks of uprising and the death of an activist leader, Xue Jinbo, under police custody, has led to the victory of the people.

After the new village committee comes into office in an election watched by the media from across the globe, it finds itself staring into the dark abyss left behind by the old committee who have sold off extensive land in Wukan without a cent from the proceeds returned to the villagers. The village chief and his committee members not only have to recover the land sold, but also take care of daily municipal matters such as clearing rubbish, mediating disputes, securing water and electricity supplies, implementing birth control and settling problems with the fishing industry.

Three months after the historic elections, the committee faces increasing pressure from the villagers who are losing their patience with the new committee for failing to get back their land. The villagers carry out protests and a road blockade to force the local and county governments to resolve their land woes. The film appears to be sympathetic to the village committee and shows the villagers to be concerned only about their land and little else. The village chief laments, “The provincial government has been working hard, but nobody knows how we can meet the demands of the villagers.”

The daily taunting from the villagers soon produces its first casualty. Zhuang Liehong, who feels that he has not lived up to the expectations of the villagers who elected him some months back, resigns from the village committee. The next one to follow is Zhang Jiancheng. He sighs, “The pressure is too much. The villagers’ resentment has only increased as days pass. It’s internal unity and our mental health that we are worried about.” However, a few days later, Jiancheng decides to carry on the struggle and bear with the strain.

“I hope there will not be any more resignation, especially since it was the first popular election in Wukan that brought us to power, and the whole world knows about us. If we resign, we will affect the morale of society at large. The flame of democracy has been lit; people will be disappointed with Wukan if we extinguish it.”

Though the film ends on a somewhat sombre note, it is a timely reminder that in the euphoria of a just victory, it is easy to forget that the gargantuan task of rebuilding society has only begun. Many sceptics in Singapore often ask, if the opposition is to form the next government, whether they will be able to run the country. My response to that is when that day comes, I hope Singaporeans will step up to the plate and play their part in active citizenry and not be like the villagers in Wukan who let their self interest overwhelm other things that matter as well.

By Wong Souk Yee

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About fn8org

For computers, it means to start again in safe mode. For us, we hope we can also start again in safe mode. But it's more like re-booting our systems and starting from much needed basics for democracy in Singapore.
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One Response to Freedom Film Festival 2014 – Film Review

  1. Mike says:

    I agree with Wong Souk Yee that this film lacks depth. To a layman audience like myself, it is neither here (politically-moving) nor there (entertaining piece). I am left to wonder after watching it, if it is supposed to be a drama play captured on video or a true documentary film. Or, is the film supposed to be educational in the first place?! The filmmaker did not seem focus on his target audience. Who does he want to show the film to? Who are his target audience? Aptly put it by Wong Souk Yee, “Such a scene might work better thematically and dramatically than the comic re-enactment of the court trial..”.

    Clearly mentioned by Wong Souk Yee that the “polished production is one of Jason Soo’s first forays into…filmmaking”, I think she is being kind of the scriptwriter/director for the less negative portions of the reviews. Otherwise, I do not think this film goes anywhere. I seriously wonder if there is any ‘artistic authority’ in Singapore that not only approves film based on contents, but also on “watch-ability”.

    In my honest opinion, this film is easily forgettable.

    Next, please!

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