Inside the Red Brick Wall (Hong Kong, 2020) [YIDFF 2021]

Winner of the 27th Hong Kong Film Critics Society prize for Best Film, Inside the Red Brick Wall is, along with Taking Back the Legislature, part of a diptych of films released by an anonymous collective known as Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers that chart the civil unrest in Hong Kong in 2019 as people took to the streets throughout the year to protest the erosions of their democratic rights after the government revealed its Extradition Bill. The resulting pushback by the authorities grew in brutality and even lethality as the protests wore on. In one of the most infamous examples late in 2019, police laid siege to protestors who had gathered at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

For 13 days, protestors who had gathered at the university to support the blockading of the nearby Cross-Harbour Tunnel endured police attacks that turned the environment into a veritable war zone. Amidst dwindling supplies and morale, they had to face the difficult decision of whether to hold out or face the uncertain consequences of surrendering to authorities, who had been documented on social media using extreme force when arresting journalists, medics, and university staff. This action was captured by members of the film collective who were at the university and resolved to document the experience at a time when police were preventing journalists from reporting.

With skillful editing, the filmmakers knit together a moving account from individuals embedded with the protestors. Despite the multiple sources and difficult circumstances, the film is clear and concise in the development of the siege and consistently cinematic as it captures arresting imagery and sounds, all of which evoke strong feelings of being bottled up and under constant duress. This is an observational documentary that is light on artifice such as on-screen text and non-diegetic music. Both appear, but are used sparingly throughout the film. The footage is organized chronologically and by utilizing the protestor’s real-time conversations and debates, it easy to understand how the situation evolved as time flowed by and their position deteriorated.

The baseline of the film is a sense of being trapped as every scene comes from different locations inside the titular red brick walls of the university and the hulking forms of riot police and armored vehicles dot the distance. We are aware of the outside world via social media posts protestors read out but unable to see it. These dread-building moments are punctuated by protestors talking about tactics and stand-offs with the police are scored by anti-police hip-hop tracks, pop music ironically used by the authorities to taunt protestors, and increasingly excoriating condemnation via megaphones. When violence finally breaks out during the many chaotic escape attempts by protestors, any expectations that the police might moderate their actions in front of the cameras are proven false. We see brutal baton charges and almost point-blank barrages of rubber bullets, paintballs, and tear gas. In response, protestors have molotov cocktails, their signature umbrellas, and bravado. It is heart-in-the-mouth stuff of war reportage levels as the camera operators are constantly in scrums of people and on the front lines of offensive actions – in one escape attempt across a rubble-strewn area, a deliberately aimed tear gas canister rockets just inches past the cameraperson who soon ducks back into cover. Despite the danger, staying with their subjects provides this vital rawness and immediacy to the footage and humanizes the protestors.

What becomes alarmingly clear by sticking close to the protestors – all of whom have their faces blurred for protection – is that many are students and a sizeable chunk are under 18. What we bear witness to in the film, then, is the crushing of their youthful idealism and hope as authorities ruthlessly and brutally overwhelm them. Their exhaustion is truly felt when we witness increasingly fraught debates between protestors on how to escape, people lament being cut off from family, and their brutalized and exhausted bodies give way to outbursts of anger, fatigue, or poignant moments of comforting each other by holding hands and hugging. This, along raw scenes of violence, makes the film a harrowing document of human suffering.

And what of the adults? There is a sense of betrayal which comes to a head towards the end as a delegation of high school head teachers enter the campus to get younger protestors to surrender to the police. Sensing the end is nigh, one protestor shouts, “you take them away today, but what happens to us tomorrow?” Their fears over the erosion of their democratic rights turn out to be justified as, by the end of events, over a thousand people would be arrested and arrests of those involved continue into 2021 as authorities use the law to suppress dissent. Indeed, this film is a damning indictment of the authorities which explains why efforts have been made to prevent it from showing in Hong Kong cinemas and makes it an essential document of that period of unrest.

Inside the Red Brick Wall was streamed as part of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival.