“We can’t afford to be afraid” insists a protestor trapped inside the siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic University during the 2019 protests sparked by opposition to the Extradition Law Amendment Bill. Credited only to the Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers collective, its directors for obvious reasons choosing to remain anonymous, Inside the Red Brick Wall (理大圍城) is a visceral exploration of life behind the barricades as the trapped youngsters, some of whom are under the age of 18, grow increasingly frustrated and afraid, desperate for escape but fearful of police violence.
The police, it has to be said, do not come out of this well. While the protestors blast local hip hop highly critical of law enforcement, the officers negotiating via loud speaker repeatedly troll them with ironic pop songs with titles such as “Surrounded” or “Ambush From Ten Sides” while otherwise taunting them with ridiculous insults and talking about going out to kill cockroaches. Such deliberate provocation at least giving the impression that they are merely looking for an excuse to storm the university does not endear them to the protestors trapped inside most of whom already want to leave but not if it means walking out into the arms of the police. With the mounting hysteria, it isn’t even the immediacy of the threat that causes the most anxiety but the possibilities of its aftermath, many fearing not just police brutality but sexual violence and that their mistreatment will not end with their arrest. This is one reason that many struggle to trust a cohort of high school principals who are permitted to enter the university in order to lead out some of the school-aged protestors, promising to protect them from the police batons in order to deliver them to their homes safely and directly. In return the protestors are asked to provide their IDs, leading many to fear they will simply be arrested the following morning.
Nevertheless, as the situation inside begins to decline it becomes clear to many that they must leave by whatever means possible, some engaging in potentially dangerous escape attempts such as abseiling from a bridge to be met by friends on motorbikes, or exiting through the sewers. Others debate the wisdom of leaving at all, correctly as it turns out surmising that the police will eventually be forced to end the siege because allowing it to continue is simply far too expensive. Even so, these are extremely young people under intense strain, mentally and physically exhausted while also fearing for their lives. Remarking that many have made their wills, one young man insists it’s not death he fears, he’s prepared for that, but that he may die in here and no one would know.
The necessity of hiding their faces, the documentarians are scrupulous in blurring even the faintest trace of identifiable features, adds to the sense of the collective which becomes in the eyes of some at least their best weapon of defence. Yet through repeated attempts to break through the blockade and the gradual shedding of those who cannot endure any longer deciding to accept the threat of arrest and surrender, the group necessarily weakened causing many to fear their reduced numbers leave them increasingly vulnerable. Some protestors loudly harangue their friends for leaving, while others offer only comfort as their fellow protestors tearfully apologise but can clearly remain no longer. A few pledge to wait it out while debating the ethical dimensions of leaving if it means abandoning those who are already too injured to make their own way out.
In the midst of the action, the documentarians hover over blood-stained helmets and the aftermath of violence but are also relatively free to record police brutality seemingly ignored by officers otherwise pinning protestors to the floor and in some cases recklessly firing rubber bullets in close proximity even at one point appearing to fire directly at the back of a fleeing protestor’s head. Interrupting these scenes with shots of empty corridors – discarded clothing, a lone shoe inches away from the fire, all those battered umbrellas – the filmmakers evoke an almost apocalyptic atmosphere of total desolation offering little hope for the future in a society dominated by fear and authoritarianism.
Trailer (dialogue free)