The artist Ai Weiwei is emerging as a ferociously productive documentary film-maker, with two other feature credits just this year: Vivos, about the abduction of protesting students in Mexico, and CoroNation, about the spread of Covid-19 in and from Wuhan. But here is his dynamic and visually stunning Cockroach. Apart from anything else, it’s a spectacular action movie that begins with a shot that had me gasping: a Hong Kong protester on a rooftop is cornered by police and, in an attempt to escape, he tries climbing down the unstable scaffolding on the front of the building, with other protesters at street level screaming their alarm. The result is heartstopping.
Cockroach is about the passionate pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, which was triggered by the introduction of the Fugitive Offenders amendment bill by the pro-Chinese Hong Kong government in 2019, exposing protesters to extradition to the Chinese mainland and effectively destroying that minimum of 50 years’ judicial independence and autonomy that the Hong Kong people were promised at the 1997 handover. “Cockroaches” is how the protesters feel they are seen by the Chinese authorities: their proud sense of democratic independence is seen as laughably irrelevant by an increasingly belligerent national government – and the same goes for any human rights. A banner proclaims that they are going the same way as Tibet and the Uighurs, and the whole of Hong Kong is going to be a scorched-earth monument to Beijing’s new obsession with alpha-dog nationalism.
Ai has an extraordinarily daring team of camera operators shooting 4K digital video, right in the midst of the sickening violence on the streets and hovering above with drones. (This use of drone shots, which is becoming a cliche in every kind of film and television production, is perfectly justified, with stunning aerial shots that give you a sense of the protests’ scope and the dramatic and tragic dimension of the tyranny imposed.) The staggering scenes of violent crackdown show you something that the nightly TV news doesn’t show very much – and perhaps not at all now that Covid has swamped our attention: the Hong Kong protests are the most important mass protest since Paris 1968, or maybe Paris 1832.
The protesters have been galvanised by the heavy-handed and chilling imposition of brutal inhumane power, and protesters are very often non-political types who have been deprived of what we perhaps take very lightly: their freedom. They have to wear black garb and masks (sometimes gas masks) to avoid identification or inhaling teargas, and they look weirdly like an opposing army to the police who are also forbiddingly anonymous. A couple of shots show the bizarre label attached to the officers’ rifle butts: “LESS LETHAL”. Will they, at some stage soon, tire of their phasers-on-stun approach and break out some other rifles marked “MORE LETHAL”?
Cockroach is easily as good as Human Flow, Ai Weiwei’s excellent 2017 film about migrants, and it’s something to set alongside Cheryl Haines and Gina Lebrecht’s 2019 documentary Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly, about the installation he directed remotely in the Alcatraz prison building, while under house arrest in Beijing. Cockroach hasthe same spectacular visual sense and the same fierce engagement.