The 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong involved a mass uprising of artists, academics, idealists and everyday people who hoped, in vain, that mass civil disobedience would change the trajectory of the Chinese government’s overt efforts to erode Hong Kong’s relative autonomy. Many of the participants were jailed and others continue to be monitored. During the protests, they wore masks to hide their identities; many of them never knew one another in a personal way despite fighting side-by-side in the streets. Months of protests gave way to increased police brutality, which further escalated the protests. After the government ultimately won, it was natural for many protestors to question what it was all for. Was it worth it?
Jennifer Ngo’s Faceless focuses on four of the protesters, combining interviews with GoPro footage of their on-the-ground experiences to capture those who fought and suffered during the several months of protests. Due to security concerns, we never see their faces, either. They’re given nicknames: the Artist, the Believer, the Student, the Daughter. Each of them has a different reason for protesting, be it spiritual, political or social. They weave in and out of the timeline as they involve themselves in different protests.
Being part of the movement changes them, and their personal stories are deeply relatable. The Daughter, in particular, has a police-officer father who certainly doesn’t see the brutality of the state police in the same light as his activist daughter. The splintering of their relationship is upsetting in its simplicity. It’s recognizable across the world. In the United States, we saw protests soon after that also targeted our own issues with police brutality and political representation … and that splintered our culture, too.
Although the protests failed to do more than delay the inevitable, their stories are nonetheless fascinating, and Ngo does what many documentaries often omit: Rather than highlight the protests as an ongoing noble fight, she follows one of her subjects into life after the movement, into a calm Hong Kong where nothing seems amiss. What was it all for? What difference did they make? There were 800 protests and10,000 people arrested. But over the end credits, she highlights footage of everyday life in Hong Kong. “There is no PTSD because there is no ‘post,’ ” the Student muses as he returns to everyday life as a citizen in a new, altered Hong Kong.
It’s a downbeat documentary, appropriately so. It makes no promises that things will get better and basically assumes the opposite. But it’s righteous in its empathy and desire to document the spirits of those who fought when it mattered, even if they’re unable to make a change now. We may not be able to see their faces, but it doesn’t matter: We can see ourselves in their struggle and, by knowing them, fight for better days ahead.
Faceless is available as part of the Heartland Film Festival’s online offerings from Oct. 7 to Oct. 17.
An in-person screening will be held at 5:15 p.m. EDT on Friday, Oct. 15 at Newfields.