SCMP video documentary series explores the evolution, emotional depth of Hong Kong protests

By Mat Booth

South China Morning Post

Hong Kong


China’s Rebel City is a four-part documentary released by the South China Morning Post that tells the dramatic story of a city at the crossroads. It was published in its entirety on December 8, 2020.

The 2019 protests were among the world’s most visible political events, with local and international news media focusing on confrontations between protesters and police on any given day and time. We had amassed thousands of hours of extensive video footage and produced more than 450 news videos since June 2019, so we wanted to tell a more complete story by giving a fuller sense of the events and the complex story behind the news headlines.

The complexity and depth of context behind the protests in Hong Kong warranted a full-length documentary film.
The complexity and depth of context behind the protests in Hong Kong warranted a full-length documentary film.

Our YouTube channel had grown to more than 1 million subscribers primarily from publishing short-form videos, so we took the road less travelled by deciding to produce this showpiece hour-long documentary. The idea was to comprehensively chronicle the battle for Hong Kong’s soul with nuance and context, detailing a year of social and political upheaval that led to the passing of Hong Kong’s National Security Law.

Logically, this was a story that can only be told as a long-form video, but we are very aware of the video consumption habits of our online audience, which typically gravitates toward shorter videos, especially on social platforms. However, we were encouraged that viewers were showing more interest in long-form content over the past few years on YouTube, Facebook, and increasingly, Instagram’s IGTV, sometimes watching videos up to 20 minutes long.

With an eye on achieving reach, we ambitiously planned to edit blocks of video within that length and segment the full-length documentary into a multi-part series. To do the story justice, some episodes were longer than others. But we managed to make each part feel complete on its own while encouraging viewers to complete the story by watching all four chapters of China’s Rebel City.

A lot of the violence on the streets captured on camera included intense and disturbing footage that was very difficult to watch. This was one of the reasons why the hour-long documentary was split into four parts. This made it more accessible and more digestible for those who needed some time to reflect before diving into the next one.

What we learned is that, for a documentary with this much quality content featuring emotional rawness and power, the intended duration of the video should not dictate or limit what a compelling story. Online audiences are so massively varied, and video length should not be a determining factor as long as the video possesses a high production value and rich emotional authenticity and value.

The episodes of China’s Rebel City are as long as the story needs them to be, rather than being forced into arbitrary time constraints. That’s one of the beauties of working in the digital space as opposed to traditional broadcast video.

Much of the footage gathered was extremely dramatic and emotional, and we went for a raw treatment. We didn’t do much colour correction or add too many effects. Our priority was to give viewers an authentic feel of the protest by presenting and staying true to what we experienced and saw.

We wanted to put our viewers in the middle of the events so they could feel the immediacy and urgency on the ground. This resulted in a polished yet gritty presentation with well-crafted sequences amidst shaky and tense footage, even including a shot where one of our own producers was struck by a rubber bullet. The use of sound is also really important with the chants and slogans of the protesters featuring heavily to chart the evolution of the movement.

The China’s Rebel City documentary is a companion piece to the book Rebel City: Hong Kong’s Year of Water and Fire, published by the Post in June. As an audio-visual account, it is able to provide a more emotionally immersive experience of what the protests felt like. Much like the book, it gave us the opportunity to revisit key moments of the civil unrest.

We went back to key newsmakers to have them reflect on major turning points and milestones, and share their side of the story. The unparalleled access to ground-zero reporting by award-winning Post journalists provided comprehensive context, and their connections helped secure exclusive interviews with the Hong Kong Police Force, protesters, and representatives from the pro-establishment and -opposition groups.

In putting together the documentary’s narrative, it was essential to take the middle ground in a deeply polarising topic. Like all South China Morning Post reporting on the Hong Kong protests, the treatment of the narrative was fact-based, objective, and, most importantly, balanced. We show multiple perspectives, and we give all stakeholders a chance to present an even-handed account of their stories.

Using a cause-and-effect storyline of the protest movement and the government’s reaction to it, the documentary represents Hong Kong’s internal debate on major issues that dominated the protests. It also provides a thorough and broad overview from a distance, which allows audiences to view things more clearly than before.

China’s Rebel City aims to present the events of Hong Kong’s civil unrest in their totality by showing perspectives from the authorities and the point of view of the protesters. It is a stark reminder of what the city went through in 2019 and early 2020, as well as the issues that still remain after the passing of the National Security Law; for many people in the city, the root of their anger and frustrations continue to endure.

Our journalists, photo editors, and videographers covered these protests on-site at great risk to their physical safety. Some have been subjected to physical harassment and strong verbal abuse just for doing their jobs to cover the unrest. This documentary is a testament to their effort and sacrifice.

We believe China’s Rebel City will serve as a valuable chronicle to help viewers outside Hong Kong grasp the complexity of the political and social situation as a whole, the evolution of the protest movement, and the emotional strain suffered by all those who lived through it.

About Mat Booth

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