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The Sounds of Protest: Do Not Split

Trailer for documentary, Do Not Split, by Anders Hammer and Field of Vision

In the summer of 2019, Hong Kong was rocked by its largest protests since 1997. Initially, the demonstrations began in response to a proposed extradition bill. The bill would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial. Soon, this developed into a broader call for greater democracy, a challenge to the Chinese government. Premiering in January at the Sundance Film Festival, Do Not Split is some of the only extensive footage of the protests many outside the conflict have seen. The film drops viewers inside the intense atmosphere to see through the eyes of the protestors. Its aim is to make viewers feel they are on the ground. 

Seeing this conflict as one of the most important events in international politics in 2019, director Anders Hammer went to Hong Kong looking to shed light on how the protestors, as they see it, are fighting to keep their democratic freedoms. Hammer partnered with his collaborator on 2017 series “Our Allies,” New York film group Field of Vision, and Flavorlab Sound had the opportunity to provide sound design and mix the documentary.

“I wanted to understand how a leaderless movement, mostly consisting of young people, is challenging one of the most powerful countries in the world – China.”

– Anders Hammer, director

No stranger to documenting conflicts, Hammer has worked extensively in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. For over a decade, he’s been telling stories about civilians and different kinds of fighters, even living in Afghanistan for 6 years. In Hong Kong, his process was close up. He would normally follow one person during a day’s activities. At times, if his subject spoke English, he’d follow them alone. If not, he took to the field with his translator. Using the Telegram app, the team kept up with the many events happening at the same time. Moving across the large city allowed them to focus on people in movement in hopes viewers would engage more with that reality than an ordinary short news report.

Echoing this movement in sound, re-recording mixer Eric Stern focused on authenticity. As all of the film was shot on location in the middle of the action, there was little time to test or prepare shots. While some distorted audio and muffled voices covered by masks presented challenges, the production sound was fairly clear. “The mix involved smoothing that out, but I didn’t go crazy,” said Stern. “I didn’t want to lose the reality of the moment.”

This same sentiment applies to sound design. For footage packed with drama, Eric focused on enhancing that experience. He added extra crowd sound to widen the stereo field. Any explosions the mic didn’t pick up were boosted with sub bass. As the director was very much surrounded by chaos, so too is the viewer.

“Sonically, it isn’t fiction. I tried to closely match what those present were actually hearing.”

– Eric Stern, Re-recording Mixer, Flavorlab

During a sweltering season in Hong Kong, the protests raged on. At times messy and violent, the physical toll of resistance made itself clear to the team. “I could feel my body changing from the long days and nights of walking and running,” remarked Anders, “One night I actually broke my nose while I was out filming.”

From the summer until the end of 2019, the Hong Kong police fired 16,000 rounds of tear gas. Most of the people taking part in the protests were also studying and working. Their days and nights walked a balance between routine and the fight to keep it, leaving most sleep deprived. “I’m definitely surprised how long the protests have lasted“ said Hammer. “Even though more than 7,000 people have been arrested, risking up to 10 years in prison, the protesters continue taking to the streets.”

A 20 minute version of Do Not Split appeared at Sundance Film Festival in January. From there, it will show at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival – CPH:DOX this week. While the film moves into the rest of festival season beyond Copenhagen, the team will be creating an extended 40 minute version that will be published online.