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Netflix’s Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower is a rallying cry for a protest age

The film feels like a heartening promise that resistance can create lasting change

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special-event releases. An earlier version of this review originally in January 2017, in conjunction with the Sundance Film Festival. It is being republished to coincide with the film’s Netflix release.

In January, Joe Piscatella’s documentary Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower debuted at Sundance, and promptly won the Audience Award in the World Cinema Documentary Competition. The doc felt particularly relevant in that moment, given the widespread protests across the United States going on during the festival itself. And five months later, it still feels immediate and vital, like a rallying cry for anyone interested in collectively declaring their political stances in public. The causes in Joshua are radically different from the ones currently preoccupying America, but the pattern of government action and popular resistance is much the same. The eponymous Joshua is a fiercely optimistic figure, providing an successful example of civil disobedience in pursuit of institutional change.

Joshua Wong is a Hong Kong high-schooler who created a wildly popular resistance movement against China’s attempt to colonize Hong Kong schools with a mandatory propaganda program. His timely response to a new political leader and a set of unpopular new initiatives leaves Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower feeling half like a template for proactive protest, and half like an uplifting rallying cry, promising that it’s possible for a popular uprising to secure the attention and cooperation of even the most resistant state.

What’s the genre?

Play-by-play historical documentary.

What’s it about?

Piscatella lays out the timeline at the beginning of the film: in 1997, Britain handed Hong Kong back to Chinese control after a 99-year lease. Hong Kongers, accustomed to Western-style governance and social and political freedom, were concerned about the impact of communist China taking over the city. Under the “one country, two systems” decree, they were promised ongoing independence and democracy for at least 50 years. But Beijing quickly began imposing new rules on Hong Kong. One initiative was a mandatory “National Education” program that opponents decried as pro-mainland propaganda, with historical events like the Tiananmen Square protests censored out of existence, and grades based in part on students’ emotional displays of loyalty to the state.

One of the central figures in the protest against the National Education initiative was 15-year-old Joshua Wong, who in 2012 started a movement called Scholarism, demanding that Hong Kong education standards be determined autonomously by Hong Kong leadership. Piscatella opens the film with Wong speaking at a rally, using fiery rhetoric to pump up a vast crowd. He’s a small, gangly kid, but he has an impressive public-speaking manner, and the courage of his convictions. As the doc progresses, Piscatella watches his young subject leading rallies and protests, standing solo on the street handing out leaflets, meeting other students for behind-the-scenes organization, and repeatedly getting mobbed by policemen and hauled off to jail. As the Scholarism movement grows, Piscatella loops in other resistance organizers and organizations. He also tracks the rise in international interest, and the dubious to indifferent response from CY Leung, the Beijing-backed chief executive of Hong Kong.

Courtesy Sundance Institute

What’s it really about?

How one person can absolutely make a major difference in the world, given enough determination, dedication, and support.

Is it good?

From a technical and filmmaking standpoint, nothing about Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower stands out. It’s a conventional talking-head doc, alternating footage of Wong leading protests with interviews in which various scholars contextualize his impact on the country. It’s as dry and straightforward as a reputable news report.

But from a content standpoint, the film is riveting. Piscatella captures how the movement builds over time, and he’s frank about behind-the-scenes despair and weariness sapping Scholarism’s strength, and how personal determination buoys it back up. His footage of violent police response is harrowing, especially when the police specifically target Wong and his lieutenants. They’re mobbed, separated from the crowd, and hauled away. The protests feel one step away from disaster at every moment. But the slow, inexorable build of the people’s response to compelling leadership is thrilling and uplifting.

Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower is almost mirthlessly sincere and straightforward, except when it spends time behind the scenes with Wong’s friends, getting to know the central figures of the movement. Wong himself is relentlessly on-message, so Piscatella spends more one-on-one time with other leaders, like sweet Agnes Chow and geeky Derek Lam. (The latter gives the film some much-needed humor by likening the entire political battle to Star Wars: “If you want to defeat Darth Vader, then you’re going to have to train some Jedi.”) The movie’s most charming moments all occur at school meetings for Scholarism, where the teenage activists briefly drop their game faces in favor of horseplay and friendly teasing about Wong’s lackluster video-game skills.

But the film’s inspirational value comes from Scholarism’s long, Occupy Wall Street-style sit-in, and from the rise of the “Umbrella Movement,” so-called because students used umbrellas first to deflect riot police’s tear gas, then to quietly identify themselves as part of a growing collective. It’s heartening to see people coming together peacefully, cooperatively, and above all, effectively.

What should it be rated?

U for Useful Educational Film, taught surreptitiously in schools around the world, probably starting around age 14.

How can I actually watch it?

The film will be available for streaming on Netflix on May 26.