DT: I am struck by the many visual depictions in the film, many of which I saw for the first time. Was that a deliberative effort to include lots of visuals, although you do have talking heads as well?
EC: Cinema is always about the interaction between image, sound and language. Inevitably, documentaries tend to be dominated by language, i.e. exposition, which often translates as talking heads. For me transcending the monotony of static talking heads is often one of my key creative challenges as a "documentarian," or, as I like to view myself, as a "filmic narrative artist." But my subject—the Umbrella Movement—is a visually striking event, albeit probably more by accident than by design. The 79-day Occupy, which transformed the cityscape, had become an unprecedented occasion to unleash Hong Kongers' creative energy, resulting in countless items of protest arts by citizen artists. Also, dancers, musicians converged at Occupy zone to celebrate the demand for democracy. It's not too hard to unearth interesting visuals for the film.
DT: Are you surprised that you couldn't present the film at Asia Society [Hong Kong Center on November 1, 2016]?
EC: Yes. I was…
DT: Because they've shown it before?
EC: They showed the short, work-in-progress 26-minute version of Umbrellas, along with To Liv(e), my first film—a full-length dramatic feature. That program took place in… 2015. [It was on 10 December 2015]. The occasion was to mark the Hong Kong University Press’s publication of a critical anthology about my work: Postcolonialism, Diaspora, and Alternative Histories: The Cinema of Evans Chan. For that occasion, the panelists included Gina Marchetti, from HKU’s Comp Lit department; Staci Ford, from HKU’s American Studies and History departments, and Michael Ingham, Professor of English at Lingnan U. Clearly, the political component of my work was not so upfront that evening.Of course, the event’s main offering was To Liv(e), which is about post-Tiananmen, post-June 4th Hong Kong. Each era has its own taboo. That was a huge taboo in China and remains so, but less so in Hong Kong these days and not at Asia Society that night…After all Hong Kong has been organizing the annual June 4th candlelight vigil from 1990 till today.
DT: So there was an early version of Umbrellas?
EC: Yes, there was a short… 26-minute version that had been shown at a couple of places, some universities—NYU, King’s College in London...
DT: After the Asia Society incident, one local university (Hong Kong University of Science Technology) banned a post-screening panel discussion, but allowed you to show the film there [on 20 November 2017]. Do you envision more censorship attempts?
EC: The more fundamental censorship problem in Hong Kong lies in the fact that it seems no longer possible for politically sensitive films to be released in commercial cinemas after the roaring success (or debacle) of Ten Years. Though there are other Umbrella films, mine is the one that ran into censorship problems repeatedly. The two censorship incidents, taking place a year apart, are both alarming and concerning. Asia Society canceled the film's Hong Kong premiere after claiming that the "imbalance" of the post-screening discussion panel had breached its "non-partisan" profile. But they had banned not only the panel discussion, but also the screening itself. [open endnotes in new window] Whereas HKUST banned the panel for "bringing politics" into its campus, but allowed my film to be screened, which I accepted because reaching out to university students remains one of my goals.
I'd say that Asia Society actually was adopting a partisan position by cancelling the panel and screening, while HKUST has made a political decision in banning the panel. From an institutional perspective, they can always organize another event to counteract this Umbrella program. As for balance, I can't imagine them inviting protesters or opposition scholars to, say, a "one-belt-one-road" event. It is regrettable that Asia Society's "imbalance" assertion has at times been reported out of context. What happened was—Yes, I had Martin Lee, Benny Tai, and Nathan Law, Joshua Wong’s colleague and newly elected legislator, agreeing to be on the panel. Yet I had also invited the pro-Beijing Jasper Tsang to be a panelist, but he declined. That gave an opening to the "imbalance" charge. However, Tsang was a key interviewee in my film.
DT: How then do you respond to criticism that the film is “one-sided,” focusing on the protesters rather than the pro-Beijing side?
As I've mentioned, the "imbalance" charge has been falsely tagged from the panel onto my film. But of course, a few critics and some PRC students I encountered in the United States also latched onto that. I must say It is most ironic that among all the Umbrella documentaries that I'm aware of, mine is the only one that has offered space to include anti-Occupy voices throughout. For example, Almost a Revolution and Yellowing, as well as Teenager versus Superpower, the Netflix-acquired documentary about Joshua Wong, barely include pro-Beijing statements. Critics of my film should be aware that, first off, I'm not making a documentary about anti-Occupy, but about the occupation. Maybe they should ask themselves—why haven't there been filmmakers who feel passionate enough about the anti- Occupy cause to make films about it?
In my film, other than having Jasper Tsang as a key representative of the pro-Beijing camp, I've cited various statements by C.Y. Leung (Hong Kong's Chief Executive at the time), sound bites from other pro-government legislators such as Priscilla Mei-fun Leung, Starry Wai-king Lee. At least three student occupiers talked about their parents' objection (wrecking the economy and creating social chaos). I have a parent confronting some pan-democratic legislators for leading her children astray (by participating in Occupy), and endangering their future. I've filmed anti-Occupy protesters denouncing students, charging them of "getting paid." I've included an animation attacking Occupy for blocking traffic and causing inconvenience.
Pro-Beijing positions have been included, such as Jasper Tsang's claim that Beijing's "universalist suffragist" proposal was not "North Korean-style" election because Hongkongers have "more than one candidate to choose from." (China's decision was to allow no more than three candidates screened by Beijing to run for Chief Executive elections.) Or C.Y. Leung attacking Occupy as "illegal" or as an event stirred up by "foreign influence." Probably my film doesn't sit well with those critics because I have included experts' and Occupiers' rebuttals. Beijing's electoral package was "false democracy," asserted Martin Lee. Prof. Andrew Nathan debunked Beijing's assertion that the National Endowment for Democracy, of which he was a board member, orchestrated the Umbrella Movement. Benny Tai presented the concept of civil disobedience as a challenge to the very notion of legality or illegality by citing Martin Luther King.
My critics also ignored my efforts in presenting the starkly polarized social reality, i.e. the huge reservoir of discontent simmering in Hong Kong, as a backdrop to Occupy. Essentially, their points of view have been represented. Jasper Tsang has quite a bit of screen time. The reason those people singled out my film for criticism—and imposed censorship practices on it repeatedly—could be because the more fair-minded my approach is, the more threatening to their needs for not having to deal with a democratic uprising. Understandably a sizable segment of the Hong Kong population doesn't want protesters to rock the boat, meaning endangering their relative economic well-being—I do have an Occupier responding to that in the film though. All that I can say is the Hong Kong Occupy/Umbrella Movement erupted in such a massive way—easily one million people participating in various degrees—indicated that a significant portion of the citizenry felt enough is enough.
In fact, I think it's due to the film's anti-Occupy material that more than one Hong Kong reporter has asked me—what exactly my position was vis-a-vis Occupy, as though having made such a film, which was being censored and banned, is not in itself a statement. My philosophy in making films with a historical subject, be it about the late Qing reformer KangYouwei or the Umbrella Movement—which has by the way been folded into history already—has always been: I'm trying to understand why and how something happened, and not why something shouldn't have happened. The last thing I want to do is to wish away, counter-intuitively, some factual and historical incidents.
DT: Marxist historian Arif Dirlik appears in your film to talk about resistance movements like Occupy around the globe. After his death in December 2017 you have indicated you will dedicate future community screenings to him. Why is he an important figure to include in your documentary?
EC: Arif Dirlik was a friend and mentor of mine for some twenty years. He first approached me when he was editing the anthology, "China and Postmodernism." Professor Kwai-cheung Lo at Hong Kong Baptist University kindly mentioned me to him as someone from Hong Kong who both writes and makes films. At Arif's suggestion, I contributed the paper "Postmodernism and Hong Kong Cinema" to his book. A few years later, he invited me to a conference, prompting me to write the essay, "Zhang Yimou's 'Hero' and the Temptation of Fascism," which quickly became controversial and much cited later on. Arif was a rigorous scholar who was as disenchanted and critical of U.S. hegemony as about post-Mao China's absorption into the neo-liberal order of global capitalism. As a Turkish intellectual in exile and an expert on the origin and development of Chinese Marxism, he was among the shrewdest observers of global modernity in general and Chinese modernity in particular. His areas of expertise overlapped with my interests and concerns, so I ended up interviewing him in three of my films—my two part Kang Youwei docu-drama, Datong: The Great Society and Two or Three Things about Kang Youwei, as well as Raise the Umbrellas. He was also an advisor for these projects.
It's a pity that I can include only some of his observations in this film Umbrellas. He had quite a bit to say about the comparative colonial experiences between Taiwan and Hong Kong, and his analysis of the evolution of Chinese state capitalism is very detailed and insightful. But I'm afraid a lot of these issues can be too technical and recondite for viewers without a strong academic background. What was left of his interview was mainly his situating of the Umbrella Movement within the global Occupy movements. In such a context, one can see Occupy in Hong Kong, as elsewhere, is a democratic struggle that encompasses both economic and political aspects of society. That's how we should understand one student occupier's question toward the end of my film: “Why are they creating a society that excludes the young?”
Arif remarked that democratic struggle is often a way of overcoming economic and social injustice caused by a corrupt system. Benny Tai echoed that view. I didn’t belabor the point by including what Tai has mentioned in one of his several interviews with me—that Occupy Central did at one time consider adding the issue of social inequality onto its platform, but ended up deciding to use universal suffrage as the defining tool to create a more responsive government. To my critics, I’d say that their emphasis on what kind of "views" have been included smacks of escapism—it's as though people either want to obfuscate or don't want to face up to the social and political dynamic that created the conditions for social unrest. It’s as though whether a momentous social event materializes or not is just a matter of "persuasive" arguments. Does anybody really believe that it was entirely due to Benny Tai or Joshua Wong's personal charisma or powerful rhetoric that tens of thousands of people would take to the street to confront tear-gassing and the police?
I would dedicate screenings of this film to memories of Arif as long as I could. However, the film itself has already been dedicated to Elsie Tu, a pioneer of Hong Kong democracy from the colonial era, whom I respected tremendously. Elsie had performed a lifetime service for the former colony, her roots in Hong Kong of course went much deeper than Arif's. But Arif was truly a friend of the Hong Kong people. After his passing, I came across an interview with Arif conducted by Lenny Kwok, Hong Kong's pioneering political rocker from the band Black Bird, in 2004.  In this interview, Arif expressed his wishes that "a placed-based identity, a place-based politics" would eventually happen in Hong Kong. Obviously, his wishes had been more than fulfilled by the furious rise of localization politics bred by the Umbrella Movement. One of the last things Arif did was to give me a brief statement in support of Raise the Umbrellas after it was banned by Asia Society. However, I didn't really have a chance or a platform to post it. Maybe now is the time:
“The Hong Kong chapter of Asia Society cancelled Evans Chan’s documentary film, Raise the Umbrellas, on the grounds that the panelists selected to discuss the film consisted only of those with pro-democracy views. This does not explain why the showing of the film itself should have been cancelled (I may note, for the record, that pro-Beijing politician Jasper Tsang Yuk-sing, who appeared in Chan’s film, turned down an invitation to participate in the panel discussion). It is revealing, and deeply disturbing, that administrators of Asia Society should indeed believe that discussion of democracy and free speech must be biased if it does not include the voices of those who would suppress them.”
And in his last e-mail to me on September 11, 2017, Arif was fully aware of his imminent demise and encouraged me to "keep it up and don't let them silence you." He may have made my role sound more heroic than it actually is.
Meanwhile, it saddens me to think about this interview appearing in this website, when the founder of Jump Cut, Chuck Kleinhans, a dear professor and mentor of mine at Northwestern University, also passed away recently. Chuck's support and commitment to creating a platform for the under-represented, non-mainstream media and cinema had been long-standing and exemplary. After hearing the political troubles that my Umbrella film ran into, he expressed an interest in carrying an interview in "the upcoming issue." Unfortunately, he never had a chance to finalize this issue. Now it's left to Julia Lesage, Jump Cut's co-founder/editor and Chuck's lifetime partner, to carry on this task, and hopefully beyond this issue. Film scholar and media students need Jump Cut. All that I can say is had there been more people like Arif and Chuck, this world would have been a much, much better place.
In memory of their intellectual courage, moral probity and mentoring, I'll do my best to bear witness to history through my tool and, if I may, art, as the battle between remembrance and forgetting, and particularly between remembrance and the active erasure of history is heating up at this cultural moment in so many corners of the globe.
Additional note by the interviewer DT:
It is tragic yet ironic that two transplants to Eugene, Oregon, Arif Dirlik and Chuck Kleinhans, passed away in December within weeks of each other. In fact, Chuck, with his loving partner Julia, had both commissioned this interview for Jump Cut a few weeks earlier. Ironically, the last e-mail from Chuck to me was his reaction to my tribute  to Arif, who was also a good comrade and fellow traveler who died on 1 December 2017.
Chuck e-mailed me 13 December 2017, a day before he passed away: “Dan, thanks for this interesting piece. I had seen Arif talk once at a conference—I think it was one David Li organized at U Oregon back in the 90s or so. I also first met Evans Chan there. I wasn’t aware of a permanent or recurring connection to [Hong Kong], so all of the rest is news to me…Best, Chuck.”
I regret I had never spoken in person with Chuck although I am sure I must have seen him at one conference or another since the 1970s, when I first personally subscribed to Jump Cut. I had been the research librarian at Temple University from 1978-1980, focusing on acquiring alternative press, including Jump Cut, and since 1986 a film studies bibliographer at various times at UC Irvine. Hence I feel forever indebted to Chuck for his raising early awareness of queer and Third World cinemas in his writings in Jump Cut especially. This interview in this issue hopefully serves as a tribute to him.