There’s no bigger lesson than perseverance when it comes to social activism in Hong Kong.
Joshua Wong Chi-fung was only 15 and Ma Jai was 17 when filmmakers followed them in 2012, a year of change in the city. Lessons in Dissent is the result.
The documentary opens during the days of a student movement against the government’s plan to enforce a national education curriculum that praises the Communist Party. Wong is at the microphone. The leader of Scholarism, the student group behind the movement, calls Hong Kong’s leaders shameful, and thousands of people echo his words.
In contrast, Ma is behind the microphone at an independent radio station, chatting about politics with a small group of friends. He also makes protest banners, taping signs, passes out fliers and works behind the scenes of a political campaign.
In the film, Ma acknowledges that he and Wong have different views of activism. Yet both have similar backgrounds - coming from the same neighbourhood and secondary school. They are ordinary students during extraordinary times.
The documentary fails to convey why Wong and Ma feel the need to be activists, what leads them to persevere. Their motivations are murky, but Lessons in Dissent is an important film as the city grapples with its identity under the shadow of Beijing.
The British director, Matthew Torne, is heartfelt in his depiction of a city whose freedoms are at stake. That is apparent in his sympathetic portrayals of Wong and Ma, whose successes and failures make an empowering story for youths.