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8 December 2014
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31 December 2014

JMSC student documentary premieres on MSNBC

A documentary about the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement produced by a group of JMSC master of journalism students has premiered on the website of the U.S. television channel MSNBC, and will be featured for the launch of MSNBC’s new digital streaming channel.

17The 22-minute film, titled The Umbrella Movement, was made exclusively for MSNBC by a team of nine students, and “reflects on the hopes, clashes, symbols, guardians, memories and frustrations of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests”, according to the MSNBC website.

JMSC Associate Professor Kevin Sites, a former producer and foreign correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC News, acted as advisor for the project.

“The idea was to put a human face on this movement, to get beyond the tear gas, the umbrellas and the art and get to the real heart of what this movement is all about – the people,” said Sites.  This was an aspect of the protests that he said American audiences had been missing.

Fish Cheng

“Normally, in any professional news organisation, you get way more time to work on a documentary this long,” he said. “The students had only four weeks to get it done, and complete their full course loads as well, so they did an incredible job.”

Lukas Messmer, a 30-year-old student from Switzerland who was editorial producer for the documentary, said making the film in such a short time was a huge challenge, especially as the team members had to learn many of the technical and management skills they needed to complete the project.

“I found managing a team a very difficult task,” he said.  “We had six nationalities, different ages, different backgrounds, six different chapters. Putting it all together and making one consistent, nice piece was very difficult I think.”

The documentary is divided into six chapters that examine different aspects of the protests, bound together by commentary from student activist Nathan Law and pro-Beijing politician Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, who is president of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong.

Alex Kwok Siu-Kit

Sites helped the students devise a documentary structure that would appeal to viewers in the U.S., but he said all the “real work” of research, filming, direction and editing was managed by the students themselves. In addition to Messmer, they included Joyce Liu, production editor; researcher Hiram Liu; and journalists Jane Li, Filippo Ortona, Vanessa Ma, Amel Semmache, Cal Wong and Vicky Wong.

Joyce Liu, a 22-year-old mainland Chinese student who has previously worked at two Chinese TV stations, said she had been unaware of the debate surrounding universal suffrage in Hong Kong while living in China, but immediately started shooting her own stories out the protests abwhen she arrived, despite the danger of possible repercussions from the Chinese authorities.

“I think as a mainlander it is sometimes dangerous because most of the mainland students are afraid to get into the protesting site because maybe some people may take pictures and we don’t know where these pictures may go,” she said.

14Liu and other students involved in the project said seeing their work published on a major international news website had brought them to tears. Sites said that the MSNBC senior producer that commissioned the piece told him that “everyone loves it – a positive start for students only half-way through the JMSC master’s degree program.

“I think the students exceeded even their own expectations on this because they became obsessed with it, like good journalist do, and they did not stop working on it,” Sites said. “It’s been the pinnacle of my teaching experience so far, that’s for sure.”

In an epilogue for MSNBC, the JMSC students spent one final night with the Hong Kong protestors before the police moved in to clear the site. The follow-up can be viewed here.