Screen grab of Vanished Archives showing a pro-Beijing newspaper headline mobilizing people to take part in the riot. Photo: Youtube/ Vanished Archives
Screen grab of Vanished Archives showing a pro-Beijing newspaper headline mobilizing people to take part in the riot. Photo: Youtube/ Vanished Archives

A filmmaker says the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society rejected her latest project on the controversial pro-China riots that took place half a century ago in the former British colony because of the narrators’ voices.

“I was told the voice of the female narrator was too irritating,” director Connie Lo Yan-wai said as she recalled the reason for rejection, after the first public screening in Hong Kong of her documentary, Vanished Archives, on Wednesday night.

Lo was part of a panel of three with cultural critic Leung Man-tao and veteran journalist Ching Cheong, discussing the film and having Q&A with an audience of more than 1,000 at the I·CARE Film Festival at Chinese University of Hong Kong. “The voice of the male narrator … is exaggerated [overly dramatic],” Lo added.

Vanished Archive
Connie Lo’s documentary Vanished Archives at Chinese University of Hong Kong. Photo: Asia Times/Benny Kung

During the Q&A session, Sampson Wong Yu-hin, a lecturer with the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, said institutions such as HKIFF that run on public money have a responsibility to play the film to fight against censorship.

Wong cited the Hong Kong Asia Society’s abrupt decision to cancel the politically controversial documentary Raise the Umbrella as an example. The Society told the New York Times its concern was in fact about the post-screening panel comprising only pro-democracy speakers.

Wong also encouraged Lo to make public the details of the rejection.

The HKIFF said in a statement issued on Thursday afternoon that Lo’s comments are not “fact-based” and the festival normally would not give any reason for rejection.

“In this particular case, we gave our comments to the director as a personal favor,” the statement added, refusing to further disclose the actual ones delivered.

The HKIFF explained that the decisions are made based on the works’s artistic merits and mostly based on festival programming group decision.

The 120-minute documentary investigates the 1967 riots that local underground communists organized to confront colonial imperialism, in effect echoing the Cultural Revolution chairman Mao Zedong started across the border in mainland China the year before.

The local riots lasted about seven months, with some estimating 51 people died and around 2,000 were arrested. The British improved governance and neglected this piece of history.

The riot remains a sensitive issue even after the Asian financial hub became a special administrative region, with a distinctive capitalist economy and political system, under China in 1997. The Communist Party has long admitted Mao was wrong to start the Cultural Revolution.

That left a group of young and patriotic prisoners confused about their action 50 years ago.

Lo spent four years interviewing those involved, including riot organizers, participants, government officials and their family members, as well as digging out declassified documents from the British government in a bid to uncover the long buried truth.

Yet all this effort did not stop Li Cheuk-to, the artistic director at the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society, from turning down the documentary by saying it has no aesthetic value at all.

Lo, also a veteran journalist, recalled that she had seen one of the reviewing staff fall asleep five minutes into the film.

She said Li, who had watched the film, insisted that the staff member could still make a judgment on the documentary “even though his [the staff member’s] eyes were closed.”

In contrast, Lo said two respected industry leaders, a critic and film producer, highly commended her documentary.

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