Hot Docs

Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law? Review: The World at Their Feet

Hot Docs 2023

6 mins read

Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law?
(USA, Hong Kong, UK, 90 min.)
Dir. Joe Piscatella
Programme: Special Presentations (World premiere)


It’s an unfortunate tradition to chastise the young as being too green and entitled when their fresh eyes and unencumbered souls register the missteps of the world around them. So often it’s from the wide-eyed indignation of youths that history has been made. Whether it be at he White Rose group at University of Munich, the high schools of Soweto, or university campuses across China, the seeds of discontent have grown in these spaces, forming some of the greatest and most significant protests and upheavals.

Joe Piscatella’s Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower (2017) profiled 15-year-old Joshua Wong, the face of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement in 2014. Wong made an extraordinary documentary subject: an intelligent high school student full of anger and frustration that manifested into social upheavals in the name of democracy. Piscatella’s latest film, Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law?, turns the camera on two of Wong’s friends and colleagues in this fight: Agnes Chow and Nathan Law.

The film shows the collective efforts of these three young Hong Kong citizens starting with the forming of the Umbrella Movement to the arrests and subsequent imprisonment of Chow and Wong. We’re taken behind the scenes and given a glimpse of the exhaustion and vexation experienced by them, as well as the fleeting moments of joy when small wins are achieved.

Unlike Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, which served as a pure profile of Wong, Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law?’s focus is on the answer to the film’s title. Although Piscatella doesn’t uncover or add anything new to the discourse that can’t already be found in the many articles written and documentaries made about Hong Kong’s current situation, Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law? perfectly articulates the problematic state of the island’s government.

Following the largest voter turnout in Hong Kong since 1997, Law was elected to the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, becoming the youngest lawmaker in the territory’s history at the age of 23. The moment his win is announced is awash with pure unadulterated emotion. The burst of applause following his name, the tears from Chow and Wong, and the look of pride and joy from the other candidates on stage with Law show the jubilation and optimism associated with his election. That abruptly ended s it when Law was retroactively removed from office, when he refused to recite the oath of office verbatim during his induction. (Law went off script and included a quote from Gandhi.)

There’s an exasperated incredulity following Law’s removal, and a sullen mood replaces the hopeful energy as the group begins to clear out his office. But when a small birthday cake is presented to him, along with a shy performance of “Happy Birthday” by Chow and their cohorts, an encouraging sentiment is found: this is merely another day and another obstacle to be tackled.

At one point in the film, Piscatella asks Law if there’s any point to the heightened security he has in place in response to being one of China’s most wanted people. Law agrees that his efforts are probably for naught, but he has to try. A variation of Piscatella’s question is one I’ve heard pondered by older generations of Hong Kong people with regards to the protests and the unrest they’ve caused: what’s the point?

Perhaps jaded by the lacklustre outcome following the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre that saw the Chinese government kill thousands of student protesters without repercussions, there is an understandable cynical attitude towards the current situation in Hong Kong. However, through Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law? we can be encouraged that the fire of youth remains steadfast, even in the darkest and bleakest moments.

Law, Wong, and Chow (and the many other students involved) didn’t seek out problems to solve. They came of age in a time when Hong Kong’s future was in question and the values and ideals they were raised on were being threatened by an authoritarian regime. And when “the adults” in charge didn’t seem to be doing anything about it, a generation took its fate into their own hands. More than anything, Piscatella’s film is a display of the cunning nature of students, and a reminder for those of us many years removed from our school days of the fierce potential we felt with the world at our feet.

Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.

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