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Directed by: Olivia Martin McGuire
Country: Australia & France
Synopsis: A man's perilous swim from China to Hong Kong parallels his granddaughter's desire for freedom beyond a city once viewed as a refuge.
The film originated in Australia first. How did you get involved in the project and how did the project evolve?
I was in Hong Kong at the time and the protests were starting to stir. A neighbor in the suburb was telling us the story of his father as a freedom swimmer and that's how it all began. I interviewed him and the parallels to the voices of the younger generation of protestors were remarkably similar. As the protests got bigger it seemed more sensible to keep everyone anonymous - and more helpful to tell the story as an outsider, given the new restrictions. I interviewed a handful of freedom swimmers from the period, as well as many of the protestors. Brooke Silcox and I were funded via Screen Australia to make a hybrid dramatized short documentary - which we planned to shoot in Hong Kong and then the Pandemic hit. So, in the midst of the conversations, our family made the call to move to London.
Was it always a plan to structure the film using a blend of live footage and animation? Would you call this film an animated documentary?
I describe the film as an animated documentary or hybrid documentary. When the pandemic hit, Brooke and I said, “Let's just wait out the four-week lockdown and then head back to Hong Kong to film.” Of course, four weeks soon became four months. We had no idea it would be more like three years, at that point. Soon enough, we started to brainstorm animation as an alternative and it was at that point that the project exploded into life, creatively. We found so many amazing animators and realized they could actually support the project, given we needed to keep both the stories anonymous and also reenact a tricky and complex historical journey from southeast China. I came across Agnes Patron's film “And the bear” and immediately contacted her. She hand paints her stories onto black paper - and the intimacy of this approach just felt so perfect for this story. From here the film became a co-production with France - and Arte jumped onboard to commission it.
The tricky bit was keeping the parallel with the protestors relevant within the film, but also managing to break into the animation across the story. We felt we needed to ground the voices of the story so we shot the interview scene and did some deep dives into possible archive footage as well. We had a wonderful editor who helped us play and experiment, as we weaved these mediums together. Remember, most of this was happening remotely across a 10,000 mile distance! Finally, the scripting, recording and live footage all took place in the UK - which meant the film was also classified as a British film as well. It was a huge effort between London, Hong Kong and Perth.
The cast is credited as anonymous. Why is that?
By the time the film was nearly finished new National Security Laws had been passed. From a duty of care for those involved, we didn't want to be reckless. Members of the team (as well as the original storytellers) had the choice in terms of whether they wanted to be credited, or not.
Did you experience any difficulties in bringing Freedom Swimmers to fruition?
Well - how long have you got...? To be frank, this was a labor of love over a few years. Everyone was working siloed from each other, but collaboratively. I have never met the two producers or the graphic author Agnes face to face! It was a complex film to make, given all the mediums involved. We made sure to consult so many people along the way to make sure the drawn stories were authentic - but also we needed to look after the team, keep the anonymity of those that requested it, and keep the stories true, fair and ethical. Throughout the process, we needed to keep interrogating why we as outsiders were telling this story - and what we could contribute from this perspective. We made a judgement that we were happy to stand by the film.
How does this film reflect the state of democracies around the world.
This film is really about how history impacts the present. Often in today's world we are encouraged to judge events quickly - it's the perils of digital media and 24-hour rolling new cycles. A digital grab from a story and a potent algorithm is enough to forge and accelerate an opinion. We hope that this film explores the symbolism of the word 'freedom' within the region - and how the meaning of it holds historical weight.