• Film

Docs: “Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law?”

The insightful and cinematic documentary, Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law? will make its World Premiere at the upcoming HOT DOCS 2023 festival in Canada, running through May 7. The launch concludes a long journey for the filmmakers who were first introduced to the young Hong Kong protestor Nathan Law while making the 2017 documentary about his friend, Joshua Wong in Joshua: Teenager Vs Superpower.

In 2011, British filmmaker and producer Matthew Torne discovered 13-year-old Joshua Wong giving an impassioned speech to a crowd of adults in a Hong Kong park. They soon began interviewing his closest friends and fellow protestors and became familiar with his friend Nathan Law.

“Nathan Law’s story always intrigued our team,” director Joe Piscatella says in the press notes, talking about Nathan’s unexpected rise during the 2014 Umbrella Movement as a leader of the protests. “He was the reluctant hero who just happened to come along at the right time in Hong Kong’s history.”

Initially, the filmmakers thought the story of Hong Kong’s push for democracy was finished after making the movie about Joshua Wong. But then the Anti-Extradition protests in 2019 erupted, putting Hong Kong back on the world stage. Piscatella and his filmmaking team quickly realized there was another chapter to tell.

“We have interviews with Nathan Law and some of the other activists that go back nearly a decade, back when they were teenagers,” editor Matthew Sultan said in the press notes. “It’s extraordinary to watch Nathan and the others go from idealistic kids to adults grappling with jail, violence, and some of the biggest stakes imaginable.”

After watching hours of archival interviews shot over the past ten years with their subjects, Piscatella and his team were convinced it was time to revisit the story of Hong Kong’s push for democracy, this time through the lens of Nathan Law.

“As a director, I’m often drawn to stories about unlikely heroes who stand up to massive power structures,” says Piscatella. “Watching Nathan Law transition from shy college student to revolution leader to the youngest elected lawmaker in Hong Kong’s history and finally to Hong Kong’s “Most Wanted” under the National Security Law, our entire team found inspiration in Nathan’s courage to take on the biggest regime on the planet. We could’ve called this film Nathan vs. Goliath.”

Nathan Law is introduced in the documentary as a shy college freshman who eventually discovers his true calling in activism. As one of the organizers of a student strike demanding that Hong Kong be allowed to elect its own leader (something promised to them back in 1998), Nathan leads five days of student boycotts with a message of peaceful civil disobedience. When the strike suddenly becomes the Umbrella Revolution, Nathan is unexpectedly thrust into a leadership role that shuts down Hong Kong for 79 days and captures the attention of the world.

When the movement falters, Nathan is charged for his role in the Umbrella Revolution, but his entire generation in Hong Kong has been awoken. Riding the enthusiasm of the student movement he helped spark, Nathan makes the impossible transition from protest leader to elected official, becoming the youngest lawmaker in Hong Kong’s history where he continues his fight for democracy from inside the government.

Fearful of Nathan’s message gaining traction beyond students, the government disqualifies Nathan on a technicality and sends him to jail. Nathan’s message of civil disobedience is overshadowed by a new generation of protestors who no longer feel that peaceful demonstrations can save Hong Kong and as the cameras follow Nathan during the biggest political crisis in modern Chinese history, he is also forced to decide what’s best for his own future and the safety of himself and his family.

As well as the difficulties of shooting much of the film during COVID lockdowns, the filmmaking team quickly discovered how much had changed in Hong Kong since their last film. “With Joshua, we got some police harassment maybe over not having a proper permit, but we openly filmed our subjects,” recalls Torne. “But filming in Hong Kong since the National Security Law was enacted in 2020 is an entirely different game.”

Suddenly, sources and characters needed their identities to be hidden. Production crews preferred to remain anonymous, sometimes with producers not even knowing their first names, and interview locations had to remain secret until hours before the shoot. Even procuring footage of public events became a challenge, as many camera operators feared violating the National Security Law.

Nathan Law admits he was somewhat naïve when he began his leadership role in the protest, but he has no regrets. “I didn’t even know my fate when this film started,” he says in the press notes. “But I’m so happy that my story can help tell the story of Hong Kong people to the rest of the world because this is not just the story of Hong Kong: it’s the story of what happens when an unchecked power takes away freedom and how quickly that freedom can slip away.”

Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law? will make its world premiere April 30 at HotDocs festival in Toronto, also screening on May 4. Nathan Law and his producers have just announced that his visa application to attend has not been processed and he will have to ‘phone in’ to participate in the Q&A on Zoom instead.

The Nobel Peace Prize nominee posted on Twitter on April 30:

Bad news: I cannot attend the world premiere of “Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law?” due to a prolonged VISA application. I started it as soon as I knew I needed to attend, but a Canadian visitor VISA is the most complicated process I’ve ever applied for as a UK refugee. It sounds counterintuitive. I also thought Canada is more welcoming to refugee visitors like me. The truth is not. There’s a bigger problem behind it, where the rights of refugees are continuously undermined. Anyways, hope friends in Toronto enjoy the film. See you virtually!”