Sam Wild came to Hong Kong to further his career as a journalist. He soon found himself in the position of eyewitness to the city’s rapidly evolving political scene as he developed his new documentary Out Of The Shadows. Here, Wild talks to Asia Times about the experience
What first brought you to Hong Kong?
I arrived in Hong Kong in March 2008 to work as a journalist with Agence France-Presse. I had lived and worked in the city for a year in 1996 at the Hong Kong Standard [newspaper]. I learned lots of my journalistic skills working at that paper with a lot of fantastic colleagues.
Did you know anything about the political set up – and climate – before you arrived?
I remember being on a remote Aboriginal island community in an isolated part of Western Australia in July 1997 listening to the handover process live on a crackly long wave radio. I had left Hong Kong nine months earlier. That was the first time I really understood that significant changes were taking place in a city I had called home for a year. Fast forward to 2008 and given my role at AFP I started to read around about Hong Kong’s unique democratic model: the lack of a genuine one-person-one-vote system and the presence of the business-friendly functional constituencies. (As a Brit I feel a touch of guilt with our government’s colonial legacy continuing to taint the political process we left in our absence).
What got you to thinking about making this documentary – and how did the process pan out?
I started volunteering as a tutor assisting kids in Sham Soi Po (with an inspirational NGO called the Society for Community Organisation) on Friday afternoons in late 2008 and took my first real steps out of the cushioned expat Hong Kong bubble. I saw genuine poverty – and also genuine pride – in that densely populated area of the city and it opened my eyes to another reality. When I then stumbled upon a mass protest in 2009 by citizens urging political change and an improvement to the lives of working class people I could understand why. I felt as a journalist and filmmaker I could bring my skill set to the process by documenting the protests – bearing witness to those demands.
How do you think the situation changed during your time in the city?
I remember watching over several years the slow but awesome reclamation of Victoria Harbour from AFP’s 62nd floor windows. The city was a giant building site. Over the course of months, I watched as an entire area of the city was created as if by magic. Yet, daily, I took the ferry back to Lantau [island] and came face to face with the noise, the construction machinery, the exhaust, the inhuman scale of that very same development. The ambitions and ideas and plans for the city seemed more and more at odds with the lived experiences of people on the ground in the city. I felt that the pollution, the noise, the stress, the crowds, the cost of living … all deteriorated while I was in Hong Kong. That said, I also felt a palpable change as well: more and more people telling me this was Hong Kong, not China, that there was a difference.
What are the main concerns of the people you met on the streets?
I have only a smattering of Cantonese words and that limits my ability to pass judgment, to be honest. However, I spent a lot of time interviewing people and the concerns were often the same: the lack of a political system that represents the interests of exploited working people (from those on the minimum wage through to elderly caged-home dwellers and loads in-between); the feeling that powerful elites have overdue influence on the city’s political and economic priorities; fear about the impact of a worsening environment (air quality in particular); the impact of raising costs amid stagnating wages; the lack of opportunities at all levels for younger generations of people.
Were there any specific difficulties you encountered?
Hong Kong is great for travelling around – even when you’re weighed down with bags of filmmaking equipment. So like that it was fantastic. On the other hand, I really struggled getting any kind of access to officialdom in the city – virtually no government body offered an interview. They shielded themselves from any kind of exposure.
What did the experience leave you thinking about Hong Kong?
I had recently returned to the UK when the [pro-democracy] September 2014 Umbrella Revolution unfolded and I felt a real desire to return. In many ways it felt like the fruition of a slow-burn resistance and I am of the opinion that uprisings will occur again – there’s only so long people’s desire for genuine participation in society can be repressed.
What impact do you hope the film will have?
The film is really just a part of the process of shedding light on the nature of the Hong Kong political regime and the need for its change.
Run us through the process you went through. It took a long time to make the film. Did it work?
It’s pretty to watch and perhaps takes an unusual route by not having a standard narrative – lots of opinions are expressed. I hope it makes a dramatic point through the protests. I filmed the great bulk of it in September 2011; I edited in monsoon with a view of the Pacific Ocean in Taitung on Taiwan’s east coast in October 2011 and then returned to Hong Kong in 2012 to fill the “holes.” I ran out of money and the film sat on ice until I finally edited it in London between April and August 2014 and in September it was screened at a film festival in London and the Document Film Fest in Glasgow [in October] – it was a great sense of achievement to see my little film on the big screen.