Hot Docs 2023 Review: “Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law?” Captures the Evolution of a Political Revolution

Joe Piscatella probably would’ve preferred not to make “Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law?” a follow-up to his 2017 documentary “Joshua: Teenager Vs. Superpower” that’s mere existence portends that Hong Kong hadn’t achieved political independence from China as the activist Joshua Wong had sought when galvanizing hundreds of thousands in the streets to protest plans from the mainland to impose their educational curriculum on the country and install sympathizers at the top levels of government. At just 15, Wong was an extraordinary subject, gradually building a following with pro-democracy protests as part of what became known as the Umbrella Movement before leading a months-long sit-in in front of Parliament and if one didn’t catch the film on Netflix, Piscatella essentially offers up a recap with the first 20 minutes of his latest, albeit shifting the focus in the same images from Wong to the slightly older man often standing by his side Nathan Law, or as the journalist Laurel Chor says, “If Joshua was the face of the movement, Nathan was the brains behind it.”

However, despite its title, the film is less a profile of Law than an illustration of the government that he takes on and would be worthwhile alone for not only continuing to bring attention to a situation that may no longer grab headlines above the fold when there are so many other pressing matters elsewhere, but to show what it means to be an activist over the long haul, shedding light on the toll it takes on Law, Wong and Agnes Chow, once nicknamed the “Princess of Democracy” and now attests to exhaustion from being harassed and arrested time and again without seeing even the slightest signs of political progress. In fact, Law is first introduced in an empty warehouse, saying he’s heard rumors that a bounty is put on his head, though if he’s stressed out, he isn’t one to show it and although he’s presented in exile, the bulk of “Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law?” covers the collective efforts of the Umbrella Movement to make Law an insider, moving on from protesting Parliament to becoming a member when he’s old enough to run for legislative council while Wong and Chow remain just under the age limit at 19.

Piscatella’s own dedication to the cause is laudatory, perhaps not adding much to the historical record that isn’t already known when he relies on news clips himself throughout for the urgent narrative, but going well beyond an already admirable effort to craft a concise and engaging chronicle of the ongoing political turbulence to take a broad view of how political movements evolve and endure beyond the moment they initially grow out of. As a generation after Wong, Chow and Law begin to take to the streets, more frustrated and aggressive in their actions than their forebearers, the powers that be can be seen eagerly branding them as violent and ratcheting up rhetoric that can’t be walked back, and when with the help of Wong and Chow, Law is elected to office with the largest turnout since 1997, only to be retroactively tossed from parliament for not reciting the oath of office exactly the right way, along with three others — he dared to include a quote from Gandhi in his ceremonial remarks — finding appropriate recourse seems futile.

Like “Joshua: Teenager Vs. Superpower,” the fight is hardly over when the credits roll, but while Piscatella’s previous foray to Hong Kong could be interpreted as having a happy ending, with Wong securing a moral victory if not a political one when the sovereignty promised to Hong Kong for 50 years after the former British colony was handed over to China in 1997 looked increasingly in peril despite rallying many around the cause, “Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law?” has to be more circumspect when it’s more obvious than ever that it isn’t a lack of political will that’s to blame but the system itself. Then again in relating what the past few years have been like for Law, it tells the world about those that want to silence him, which is all he ever wanted in the first place.

“Who is Afraid of Nathan Law?” will screen again at Hot Docs on May 4th at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema at 1 pm.

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