Systems Down, one of this year’s themed programs at Hot Docs, features a collection of stories about individuals fighting against broken structures of oppression. Fitting snugly into the theme of the good fight soldiering on is Faceless, Jennifer Ngo’s dizzying portrait of the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that waged amid a warzone of police brutality. The film can’t name its young heroes who take to the streets to protest proposed extradition laws that threaten to sell out the rights of Hongkongers to mainland China. Instead, Ngo offers a quartet of masked freedom fighters. These are the pre-COVID days, however, and the protesters’ masks and bandanas, while familiar now as safeguards against a deadly virus, are actually protections against surveillance from China’s authoritarian regime. They bravely entrust Ngo with telling their stories and, in doing so, share the pro-democracy fight for the world to see.
The four protesters appear under the pseudonyms the Artist, the Believer, the Daughter and the Student. Although one can’t identify them clearly, Faceless lets audiences recognize the four characters through their distinct personalities. They’re a quartet of young rabble-rousers who refuse to yield to a status quo that limits their rights and freedoms.
Faceless presents the protesters as a united front. Their stories combine to a collective narrative as the interviews and observational sequences converge. Each speaker ultimately testifies to the shared experience. Ngo and her cinematographers get into the thick of the action and capture a frenzy of violence that the protesters experience at the hands of police. They also witness the shrewd tactile measures that the protesters employ to outsmart the police while advancing their message.
Comparisons to the recent Oscar-nominated documentary short Do Not Split, directed by Anders Hammer, are inevitable, but there is so much more of this story to tell. Hammer’s film arguably eclipses Ngo’s work cinematically — Do No Split simply reverberates with an immediacy that few docs do—but this feature-length portrait captures a wider picture than an urgent snapshot. Faceless, however, with a bit more context, for Ngo fills in the backstory and political climate from the outset. But Hammer also tells the same story—and then some—in half the time. Faceless isn’t as instantly absorbing because its observation on the streets is initially more cautious. The footage taken amid the canopy of umbrellas is nevertheless as compelling as much of the material Hammer captured on the frontlines. The doc also doesn’t account for the threats to the personal security of Hongkongers amid COVID-19 as the pandemic stalled protests, increased surveillance, and amplified the police’s power. Faceless’s conclusion with the protests at Hong Kong Polytechnic University in November 2019 point oddly make the film seem more dated than Do Not Split, which Hammers updated after the virus hit.
As a work in its own right, Faceless offers further evidence of the war for democracy in Hong Kong and the dangerous rise of China’s might. Ngo delivers a troubling portrait of a nation’s struggle to achieve justice for all. Most admirably, she summons the spirit of a generation that’s willing accepted the challenge to fight for its future. There are enough worthy stories about these valiant protesters to fuel any number of docs.
Faceless premieres at Hot Docs 2021.