JMSC Masters of Journalism graduate wins third annual Mick Deane Scholarship
29 May 2017
JMSC alumni recognized across categories at the 2017 SOPA Awards
6 July 2017

Documentary makers take on tough issues in Hong Kong and the Mainland

By George W. Russell

Hot-button issues from Mainland migrant worker rights to mental illness in Hong Kong were among the subjects of this year’s crop of documentaries by JMSC Master of Journalism students.

Six documentaries, each lasting 12-17 minutes, were shown to HKU staff, students and members of the public at a screening in the Chong Yuet Ming Building on 19 May.

“Watching the students’ final projects at the screening, I am quite amazed at the progress the MJs have made during the past 12 weeks,” said Ruby Yang, the Oscar-winning director who is an Honorary Professor at the JMSC and an instructor for the course.

Other subjects tackled were idol-band fans in China, the Sikh religion, the aesthetics of beauty and sexuality, and the doyenne of Hong Kong dance teachers. “Although these are ambitious projects for first time documentary video makers, they’ve worked really hard, especially during the editing period, to accomplish really nice pieces,” said Nancy Tong, Visiting Associate Professor at the JMSC and another course instructor.

The documentaries reflected the students’ diverse cultural backgrounds with dialogue in Cantonese, Mandarin, English, and Punjabi. “It’s great to see their different background did not hinder their collaboration but actually benefitted their understanding of different cultures,” said Tong.

If it is possible is a 17-minute film about former Foxconn worker Zhang Feng, who advocates labour rights through his music. Zhang, from Hubei province, leads a Shenzhen-based band named Pentagram and has become an unofficial spokesman for China’s 277 million migrant workers.

Zhang’s sometimes provocative statements – “If we make good use of [music], our thoughts will not be easily controlled… our message will not be manipulated” – have sometimes got him in trouble with his family, the authorities and his employers.

Unsurprisingly Zhang was reticent over being the main subject of a documentary. “For me, the biggest challenge was to obtain trust from our main character,” said Jia Yizhen, a member of the documentary team.

Meanwhile, What is beauty looks at the aesthetics of the human body, both as a abstract subjective point of view and as a sexualized commodity, through the eyes of Luna, a photographer and model, and Jerry, also a photographer. “During the process we also had to ask ourselves, what is beauty for us, where is our aesthetics from, will it influence our project, how can we present beauty,” said Yang Deng, who did the camerawork.

The two subjects have different approaches to their work, so the documentary makers brought them together. “The most challenging part was to write up a storyline in order to contrast the two main characters,” said editor Jason Chan.

Another documentary, Fantasy, looks at the loyal fans of the Guangzhou-based all-woman pop-music group 1931. The documentary chronicles the obsessive nature of fandom as expressed by the young single men who document the band’s every move. “By joining their gatherings, eating out with them and drinking beer seemed work out to let them talk,” said Juliette Li, a documentary team member.

The filmmakers draw parallels with the lonely and frustrating life of He Jieling, known as Paopao, a member of 1931. “We got to chat with her without the manager,” said Li. “It was her one day off so the manager was less vigilant. Maybe [he was] too tired to follow us as well.”

Longing is a study of a controversial issue in Hong Kong: mental illness, which is believed to afflict—to some degree—one in seven people in the city. The documentary team interviewed three people willing to discuss their conditions, how they were being treated, and the reactions they faced from family, co-workers, and society at large.

The film traces their stories amid complex imagery of the city. “Editing is the most difficult part,” said Laurel Qiu. “We had to reach an agreement on what key message we want to deliver, how to arrange so many different types of B roll, and what effects we should use.”

Khalsa, The Pure explains the rites and rituals of Sikhism, a religion followed by 25 million people around the world, including a small minority in Hong Kong. Much of the footage was filmed at the Sikh gurudwara, or temple, in Wan Chai.

“I had to make sure that none of their rituals got disrupted with us shooting around,” said director Sonali Vasnani. “Eventually, everyone in the temple was very hospitable towards us, just making us feel like we are part of the family.

Finally, Prima Ballerina profiles Joan Campbell, principal of the Carol Bateman School of Dancing, Hong Kong’s oldest ballet school. She tells of the ups and downs of her 60-plus years in Hong Kong, the joys of her family life, her continuing connections with students, and her amusing struggles with Cantonese.

“Not only does she have amazing stories, she is also a very enthusiastic and humorous person, who brought our documentary to life,” said team member Maria Cristhin Kuiper.

Visit the JMSC YouTube channel to watch the full-length films:

Fantasy, by Yuqin Huang, Juliette Li, Alex Meccheri and Bingyi Ni

If it is possible, by Wan Huang, Yizhen Jia, Jonas Kelsch and Hao Zhang

Khalsa, The Pure, by Jayson Albano, Ivy Tang, Sonali Vasnani and Xiaoxi Wu

Longing, by Gigi Chiu, Laurel Qiu, Kristina Shperlik and Han Zhang

Prima Ballerina, by Maria Kuiper, Aston Law, Hoi Shan Li and Deming Zhang

What is beauty, by Jason Chan, Yang Deng, Angie Hui and Pan Lan