Olivia Martin-McGuire’s Swim for Freedom

August 5, 2021
Fresh off the success of her 2018 documentary, China Love, Australian filmmaker Olivia Martin-McGuire will present her new film Freedom Swimmer at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Freedom Swimmer tells a story of a grandfather’s pursuit of freedom through an impossible journey from China to Hong Kong in the 1970s. This is told in parallel with what his granddaughter is facing in Hong Kong in the present day.

The present day scenes invite us into a house in which the grandfather is telling the granddaughter of his story. These scenes are mainly presented through a series of close-ups, which creates such an intimate connection with the characters that we are convinced we know them. This is even more impressive when we learn that the actors requested to remain anonymous, and we never actually see their faces.

The flashback scenes are told via dreamy animation produced by animator and director Agnes Patron (And then the Bear). The animation is created with paint over black paper causing the paintings to emerge out of the darkness and then sink back into it.

The animation tells the story of the grandfather escaping China with his daughter in a self-built raft, travelling across the four kilometre stretch of sea from China to Hong Kong. These scenes manage to successfully invite the viewer into the experience of a refugee through its abstract form, allowing us to fully immerse ourselves and get as close to the experience as possible. The sequences are emotional and intense, and they force us to truly realise the terror and inhumane conditions the refugees endured.

The story is also told through live footage of the current protests in Hong Kong as well as archival footage of the freedom swimmers from the 1950s – 1970s.

The film is mainly concerned with analysing the effect that the past has on the future, and it successfully does this through the different formats shown on screen as well as the obvious parallels between both stories.

We spoke with director Olivia Martin-McGuire ahead of Freedom Swimmer’s premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

When did you know this was going to be your next project? What drew you to this story?

“I was living in Hong Kong at the time. Unrest was bubbling at the surface, and I had someone in my local community tell me this story of their father. I was really struck by the parallels to the feeling in Hong Kong now. The symbolism and language felt distinctly and poetically connected. Aside from the very real parallels to contemporary tensions, I also felt that the story was universal, and as an Australian, the story of people fleeing their homes, risking everything, and travelling across dangerous waters seemed relevant.

“What was remarkable at this time, was if you were lucky enough to make it to Hong Kong – you were given an immediate visa and an opportunity to change your destiny. Imagine that?”

I understand the project was affected by the COVID pandemic, in what ways did this change the film?

“We originally planned to shoot the film in Hong Kong … then the pandemic hit. We kept waiting to see when it would pass, but then it really escalated, and we started thinking of other ways. We had a long search for an animator … Then one day I was watching the Cannes Film Festival online and I saw Agnes’ film And then the Bear. It was absolutely incredible, and it really struck me how she used light out of darkness. So many of the stories we had been told were about hiding in the darkness. That period in China had limited electricity so they were literally following the reflection of the neon lights of Hong Kong in the distance.

“Agnes quickly said yes and … during a month of opening up in London, between the lockdowns and Covid waves, we managed to orchestrate a shoot and then the animation and composition took place in Paris. The post and edit were all in Perth. We all worked across Skype, Zoom, Parsec, Whatsapp and email for a solid year. Aside from the shoot in London, none of us ever met face to face. Myself and the two producers Brooke Silcox and Ron Dyens have never met – and yet we worked together with incredible respect, support and care. It really was an amazing experience to connect and collaborate so deeply without face-to-face contact.”

Olivia Martin-McGuire

In Australia, I personally have not seen much coverage of what is happening in Hong Kong. Do you think there has been enough coverage by Australian media of the issue? And do you think it’s important for Australians to know what is going on there?

“I think it is important that Australia understands the region as they are significant neighbours. You might have heard about the protests, but I think it helps to look at what’s behind them. I am always interested in what is behind the events. I am definitely not an expert, but from living in China and Hong Kong and making these two projects [Freedom Swimmer and China Love], my feeling is as much as the region is incredibly powerful and remarkable in its capabilities, there is cultural trauma to understand as it seems to feed into most stories in some way or another.

“Understanding the past allows us to understand the present a lot more. I often wonder if today we are encouraged to make quick judgments, quick assessments, quick reads, quick news feeds and actually that doesn’t help us stay connected to each other – it disengages our capacity to empathise.”

One scene that struck me was when the father is making the actual journey through the water. I noticed that it’s one of the only times you let the animation take over and have no voice telling the story. Instead, we get a question from the daughter who asks the father if he was afraid. The father replies: “There is no fear, when there is no hope.” I thought this was wonderful insight into this experience and it is something that is insane to think about. It took me a while to realise what he was actually meaning. But when I fully understood it, it almost had me in tears. Could you maybe talk us through this scene, and I would also just love to hear your thoughts on the quote. Do you think that without this mindset, the swim across could have even been attempted?

“This is something that was repeated a lot in the interviews – no fear when there is nothing left. They also said people who have a lot are much more afraid, generally. They were ready to die – and death was no different to what they were leaving. This was said with great conviction. The unusual part of this, is it was also said to me by the protestors I interviewed. They felt the future was hopeless – but that they would never stop.

“I think it is hard for us to really comprehend what it takes to leave everything behind, as a refugee. For this man it took 15 years and several failed attempts. The difference of experiences in our lives is cruel and the more comfortable we are, I think, the harder it is for us to empathise with others…”

Why did you choose to use the live/archival footage in the film?

“We wanted to show the echoes of what is happening now in Hong Kong. The “magicians”, who are building the tools for the protests are using a lot of found objects and materials much like the freedom swimmers did to build a raft. The hiding in darkness is much like the protestors now wearing black and hiding their identities in the sea of black protestors… The use of the umbrella for the freedom swimmers, as a sail, and also now with the protestors as a shield and also as a symbol… There were lots of parallels we wanted to explore…”

Do you know if any of the people that the story is about have seen the film? If so, what were their thoughts?

“We have shown it to those in the UK we interviewed but not to those in Hong Kong. We don’t want to put anyone in harm’s way until we know the effect of the film and if it could be traceable. This is something we will wait for in time but something I very much look forward to. It would be amazing if it played in Hong Kong at some point.”

Freedom Swimmer is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival

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