Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

"The two basic tenets of documentary - find something interesting, tell its story in an interesting way. Faceless absolutely achieves the former, to the point that it starts to highlight its difficulties in the latter." | Photo: Dogwoof

Faceless treads a difficult line in making personal the interwoven demands of the 2019 Hong Kong protests, while protecting the individuals whose stories are told. There are four, and by extension, more. All are masked, in some cases also blurred. The consequences are not trivial, nor is this film.

Jennifer Ngo directs, she's previously produced stories for TV documentary staples Frontline and Panorama. Covering the Hong Kong protests gave her opportunities to tell these stories, and their impact. This is a collaborative effort, there are many credited and potentially more uncredited to preserve their anonymity. There is an astonishing amount of 'on the ground' footage, though that starts to feel an odd description when there are drones involved. We have direct insight through GoPro cameras, phones, archive and media coverage as well. Some of it is distressing, physically so. Blood and bruises, crowd control gases, but also fiery tempers, emotional anguish.

There is the Student, the Artist, the Believer, the Daughter. Each have, had, different motivations for participation in the protests. Each have varying degrees of support from their communities, families. We see some of the new mechanisms that aid the protestors, the "parents", the "navigators". It is here that Faceless is possibly weakest, this is difficult territory to map.

There are animated timelines over footage to explain some of Hong Kong's history and the process of alignment with the People's Republic on the Mainland. There's a quote reused that talks about patriotism but even for someone familiar with the situation there didn't feel enough detail about "one China, two systems". Though she appears on screen a few times Carrie Lam's background could do with more context. There's mention made of past attempts to change legislative frameworks and the resulting protests, including those of 2014, but some things are perhaps simplified too far. When talking about generational gaps Lam's cohort included pro-democracy activists, and the Queen's Dock demolition early in her governmental career showed a tendency to the tough.

We see through time the protests grow, evolve. In the footage you can see the changes in tactics that include extinguishing crews, the widespread use of torches and lasers to disrupt recording. While Faceless shifts focus (sometimes literally) to document (and protect) individuals, it also looks at the ad-hoc organisation around the protests. Within that there's opportunity to talk about extended organisation, but it's not taken.

The two basic tenets of documentary - find something interesting, tell its story in an interesting way. Faceless absolutely achieves the former, to the point that it starts to highlight its difficulties in the latter. In raising questions of post- and re-colonialism, generational conflict, religious persecution and rights for LGBTQ+ communities Faceless finds the green shoots of individual resistance in the thicket of mass protest. What it lacks in part is a map to help locate these affecting individual stories in that grand scale.

The score by Tartell Harris, also featuring a choral/orchestral piece by Voces8 feels a little heavy-handed at times. A song by Denise Ha plays at the end and over the credits. Translation via app suggests "There Are People" as the title but the shots of quotidian Hong Kong over the top feel almost like tourism. A stark contrast when we are also being told that those involved are not suffering PTSD because "there is no post-".

One finds oneself worrying if enough has been done to protect identities. At times spaces are blurred and it's unclear what might have been there to remove. Number plates obfuscated prevent solid time and place and perhaps also tracking down return angles from dash-cams. There are shades of The Conversation but this surveillance is nowhere near as kindly. There's a line about "erasing other possibilities" and Faceless does not do that. Indeed, it creates them, by giving face (without revealing it) to single voices. Where it struggles is in illustrating what those odds are. A million and a half on the streets is incredible to see, more so that this is one in five Hongkongers. Yet in sum they are perhaps one one-hundred-and-eighty-sixth the population of the mainland, and that balance is crushing.

That sense of the overwhelming, though, is not lacking. Indeed, the defiance and spirit of its participants means that though their expressions are covered their hearts are on their sleeves. These parallel struggles are compelling, as is the film. Ultimately the concerns expressed here would be addressed by more, and if this sparks curiosity, sympathy, action, then it has succeeded.

Reviewed on: 26 Aug 2021
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Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors forge political community through anonymity.

Director: Jennifer Ngo

Year: 2021

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: Hong Kong


EIFF 2021

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