FREEDOM FOR THE WOLF: Featured in the New York Times
Ayear has passed since the police fired tear gas on pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, setting off a huge sit-in protest movement that took control of a large portion of the center of the city for more than two months, generating headlines the world over and shocking the Communist Party leaders in Beijing.
The Umbrella Movement, named for the shields that protesters used to defend themselves against tear gas and pepper spray, now belongs to the ages, its meaning and significance to be slowly digested by scholars and filmmakers for years to come.
A new documentary, “Freedom for the Wolf,” set for release next year, brings academia and movie making together, featuring the Hong Kong protests as an essential part of a global struggle against the rise of “illiberal democracy” — what the director, Rupert Russell, who has a doctorate in sociology from Harvard, calls “voting without rights.”
Hong Kong natives can be forgiven for assuming the title was inspired by a nickname for the Umbrella Movement’s bête noire, Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s chief executive, known by some as the “wolf.” In fact, it comes from a quote from the philosopher Isaiah Berlin: “Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep.”
The quote captures the main idea of the film: that freedom can be a double-edged sword. What is liberty for some — for example, a billionaire American who, thanks to the Supreme Court, can now bankroll a presidential campaign — is seen as repression by others, such as those who see the wealthy increasingly holding sway over politics in the United States, Mr. Russell says.
The film crew traveled to Hong Kong, India, Japan, Kuwait, Tunisia and the United States to explore the rise of a form of democracy where people can vote, but where the plumbing of the system — freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech — is, they say, increasingly under assault.
But Hong Kong is ground zero for the film. Here, the authorities were seeking to impose a voting system without real choice, ultimately failing. A highly educated citizenry was becoming increasingly mobilized to push back against what many perceived to be a gradual erosion of their civil liberties and the increasing influence of the Chinese government, which had promised to give Hong Kong a great deal of autonomy as part of its return to Chinese rule in 1997 after more than a century and a half as a British colony.
The crew was lucky enough to be in Hong Kong on Sept. 28 last year, when what was a well-organized but still relatively small-scale protest against the proposed Beijing election rules snowballed into a mass movement. A 90-second clip, set to the eerie and urgent soundtrack of the electronic chirp of a Hong Kong pedestrian crossing signal, shows empty streets in the normally bustling heart of the city. The streets gradually fill up with the police and protesters, ending with volleys of tear gas.
But Mr. Russell and the producer, Camilla Hall, a former journalist for The Financial Times, do not just tell the story of Hong Kong through the eyes of the protesters. They also interview pro-Beijing lawmakers in Hong Kong, including Regina Ip, to explore their interpretation of freedom.
“We tell that story from the point of view of the pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong and what they do to stamp down on this movement,” Mr. Russell, who is the son of the British director Ken Russell, said in a telephone interview from Berlin. “What you end up seeing is that they are targeting every single pillar that makes up a free society, whether it is the freedom of the press, whether it’s the freedom for transparent public opinion, whether it’s the independence of the courts, the independence of the police.”
“What they are doing is, they are creating a rhetorical shift, saying you need rules for freedom, therefore you need order,” he added.
This was the language used by President Xi Jinping of China in a recent written interview with The Wall Street Journal. Discussing China’s Internet policy, Mr. Xi wrote: “Freedom is the purpose of order, and order the guarantee of freedom.”
Across the world, Mr. Russell says, autocrats are increasingly using talk of freedom to legitimize their policies and rule. It is more than lip service, he says. It is testimony to the fact that the word is incredibly powerful but means very different things to different people. Mr. Xi or President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia can bolster their rule by emphasizing consumer freedoms and the freedom to chose one’s own career, for example.
The film explores the world’s reaction to this rise of “freedom for the wolves.” Perhaps nowhere do people sense it more than in Hong Kong, where Mr. Leung unwittingly channeled Mr. Berlin during the protests when he wished citizens would draw inspiration in the Chinese Year of the Sheep from the docile behavior of the animal and “pull together in an accommodating manner to work for Hong Kong’s future.”
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