Hong Kong used to literally be a safe harbor. From 1950 to 1980, two million refugees swam to the freedom of Hong Kong from the Mainland. That was then. Now the waters surrounding Hong Kong represent something veery different, as the case of the 12 Hong Kong Youths, abducted on the high seas and held incommunicado in the PRC so grimly illustrates. Their crime was seeking freedom in the democratic nation of Taiwan. The grandfather of this short film’s narrator fully understands the circumstances then and now, so he encourages his unidentified granddaughter to follow his example in Olivia Martin-McGuire’s partially animated short Freedom Swimmer, which screens as part of this year’s DOC NYC.
One afternoon over tea, the woman’s grandfather tells her the harrowing story of his flight from the Cultural Revolution. He rigged a crude raft and braved roiling surf with her mother, who was then a very little girl. Of course, it was dangerous, but staying would be more perilous. He tells her matter-of-factly, when there is no hope, there is no fear. Ever since then, he has led a modest but free life in Hong Kong, but the point of his story is to convince his granddaughter to now leave Hong Kong, so she too can live in freedom.
Freedom Swimmer, because they would be subject to the CCP’s draconian “National Security” Law. The two family members are portrayed by thesps and even their faces are kept scrupulously hidden from the camera. Yet, despite the oblique framing the live actions segments are quite elegantly composed, like artistic still life paintings. On the other hand, the animation consisting of stylized pastel line-figures and swirling swooshes of colors aptly illustrate the intense drama of the grandfather’s true-life story.
Visually, this is an unusually distinctive film and it is timelier than ever, given the continued plight of the twelve Hong Kong Youths (#save12hkyouths), who range in age from 16 to 30. In many ways, it is an elegy for Hong Kong’s lost freedom, but it still expresses hope and love (both of which spur the grandfather to tell his tale). The contrast between Hong Kong then and now is stark, but the film is bittersweet and even quite beautiful. Very highly recommended, Freedom Swimmer screens as part of the “Modern Family” shorts program in-person 11/16 and online 11/10-11/18, during DOC NYC ’21.