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The reverse effect of China's 'Oscar ban'

Scott Roxborough
April 22, 2021

"Do Not Split," a short Oscar-nominated documentary about the Hong Kong protests, has gained visibility through Beijing's boycott of the Academy Awards.

A still from the film 'Do Not Split': Man being arrested by the police in Hong Kong, surrounded by people documenting the scene with their phones
A still from the film 'Do Not Split'Image: Anders Hammer/Sundance Institute

When the 2021 Academy Awards are handed out on Sunday, April 25, Oscar nominee Anders Hammer won't be at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.

COVID-19 restrictions mean that the Norwegian director, whose film Do Not Split on the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests is nominated in the best documentary short subject category, will be watching from a TV studio near his home in Oslo.

"I brought my suit to the cleaners, I'm going to dress up and everything," he told DW. "People have asked if I'm disappointed that I can't attend in person. I'm just grateful for all the attention our documentary has been getting and the debate it's sparked about what is happening in Hong Kong."

It was more than Hammer could have hoped for when, back in 2019, he went to Hong Kong to document the popular street protests that had sprung up, originally in opposition to a new extradition law that could have sent defendants in Hong Kong to mainland China for trial.

Hammer's half-hour documentary follows a handful of the protesters as they take to the streets. We get an intimate look at the frontline of the demonstrations and watch the increasingly brutal tactics by Hong Kong police as they crack down.

2020 Sundance Film Festival | Anders Hammer, Regisseur "Do Not Split"
Anders Hammer premiered his film 'Do Not Split' at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020Image: Jim Bennett/Getty Images

"There was a lot of coverage of the demonstrations back then, all over the media; we thought we would be a complement to that," Hammer explains.

Why China is boycotting the Academy Awards ceremony

Instead, Do Not Split — the title comes from a slogan adopted by protesters meant to encourage the movement to present a unified front — has become the center of the discussion. After the half-hour film received an Oscar nomination, Beijing had reportedly told mainland media outlets to either boycott or downplay the film awards ceremony. Then Hong Kong television network TVB, which had carried the Academy Awards telecast for more than 50 years, said it will not broadcast this year's Oscars.

TVB called the decision a "purely commercial" one. Critics saw government censorship at work. In addition to Hammer's documentary, Beijing is thought to object to the attention given Chinese-born director Chloe Zhao, whose US drama Nomadland is the Oscar frontrunner for best picture. Zhao has come under attack on social media in China for comments she made in an interview back in 2013, in which she said her childhood in mainland China was filled with "lies everywhere" — a quote that has been interpreted as a criticism of the government.

Hammer says Do Not Split hasn't been officially banned — "we haven't heard anything from a government official in China or Hong Kong" — but notes that if Beijing hoped that censoring the Oscars would smother debate, "it has had the reverse effect. Our film has gotten more attention than we ever would have, and there is even more debate around the protesters and the suppression of democratic rights in Hong Kong."

Hammer says he has been doing back-to-back interviews with media outlets worldwide since the "Oscar ban" and is glad the message of "Do Not Split" — that "freedom in Hong Kong is disappearing fast" — is getting out there.

The impact of COVID restrictions on Hong Kong's protest movement

When the coronavirus pandemic hit Hong Kong in late 2019 it had an immediate, and lasting, impact on the protest movement. Demonstrations, which had been thousands strong, were outlawed under new COVID-19 restrictions.

"Suddenly you could only have four people in a demonstration," Hammer remembers. "The government used the pandemic to shut down the protest."

Last summer, the mainland government enacted a new security law — "Beijing's final answer to the protesters" says Hammer — giving themselves sweeping powers to crack down on anti-government activity in Hong Kong.

A call to action

Hammer believes the new law has "created a lot of fear" on the island, as critics of Beijing find themselves in a grey zone, unsure "what is allowed and what is illegal. It's leading to questions of censorship and self-censorship," he says. His hope, beyond winning an Oscar on Sunday, is that international viewers of Do Not Split put pressure on their local governments to censure China for its actions.

"Things don't look hopeful at the moment, and governments are afraid that if they sanction China they could lose political influence and their country's businesses could lose money by being locked out of the Chinese market," says Hammer. "But if I've learned anything from the protesters in Hong Kong is that you can't give up."