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2018 / Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower

Joe Piscatella

Joe Piscatella

Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, directed by Joe Piscatella, is the 2018 recipient of The Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize.

Piscatella’s film tells the story of teenage activist Joshua Wong, who mobilized young people in Hong Kong and risked his future after the Chinese government backtracked on its promise of autonomy to the territory.

After regaining control of Hong Kong in 1997, Beijing promised a kind of independent rule under the “one country, two systems” principle. But in 2010, the Chinese government announced a plan to implement a mandatory “moral and national education” program, which made no mention the Tiananmen Square massacre. Opponents denounced it as propaganda.
Wong helped found an opposition group called Scholarism, which insisted on the autonomy of Hong Kong’s education policy. Members of the group occupied a public park near government offices and began a hunger strike in 2012 to draw attention to the cause.

When the Chinese government announced it would vet candidates for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive in 2014, Wong helped bring tens of thousands of mostly student activists to the streets in a bid to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy. Scholarism joined other organizations to fuel a major protest that became known as the Umbrella Movement (as demonstrators used umbrellas to shield themselves from police pepper spray), which lasted several months, brought parts of the city to a standstill, and lead to the formation of Demosistō, a pro-democracy political party.

Joshua won the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award at Sundance 2017 and is now a Netflix Original in nearly 200 countries. Joshua Wong was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his activism portrayed in the film. Previously, Piscatella directed #chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator (2013), about an American teenager in Chicago who helps coordinate the Syrian revolution. #ChicagoGirl won the DOC U Award at IDFA 2013

In addition to his directing work, Piscatella has written numerous feature scripts and television pilots for 20thCentury Fox, Spyglass and Touchstone Television. His credits include Disney’s Underdog, Warner Bros.’ Ozzy & Drix and NBC’s Stark Raving Mad.

Documentary Film Prize Remarks

Transcript of Documentary Film Prize Remarks

DANIEL GELILLO:  Good afternoon everyone. Like I said in the video, my name is Daniel Gelillo. And I’m a senior at  Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland. I would like to thank the Nation Institute for inviting me to present the Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize to Joe Piscatella, the Director of the amazing documentary Joshua: Teenager Versus Superpower.

When I was first extended the invitation to present this award, I will admit that I was a bit confused. I had no idea how a documentary about a teenager in Hong Kong had anything to do with me. Upon viewing the film, it became incredibly clear to me just how important and connected Joshua’s story is to the times we live in, and to what I have been doing recently.

Let me explain. I have been quite involved in the recent nationwide student movement pushing for gun control, which brought it up in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Just a week after the massacre, I organized a walkout/student protest at the US Capitol, where I and about 1,000 other students from Montgomery County, Maryland called on Congress to pass some commonsense gun laws in order to curb the gun violence plaguing this nation.

Since then, I helped start an organizing group called MOCO Students For Gun Control, which organized another walkout, all in an effort to change something in this country that should have been changed long ago. My fight will personally continue tomorrow at the White House, where local students and I will memorialize the victims of the Columbine shooting, the 19th anniversary of which is this week.

The fact that I have been compared to Joshua Wong is a great honor. When he was 14, three years younger than me, he took on the Chinese communist government and won. The work done by Joshua and his group Scholarism prevented the pro-communist national education curriculum from being implemented in Hong Kong. At greater risk to their wellbeing than I have ever personally faced, Scholarism emerged victorious against a seemingly unstoppable force.

During the Umbrella Movement, Joshua rallied an entire city to stand up for democracy, for weeks at a time. The courage and selflessness profiled in this documentary should serve as inspiration to us all to fight for what we know to be right. I know it has inspired me in quite a profound way.

It is important to remember that the work of an activist like Joshua continues long after the cameras stop rolling. Demosistō, the political party Joshua created with other leaders of Scholarism, continues to advocate for Democratic values in a time, and in a place, where it is dangerous to do so. Joshua’s commitment to sustain civic action is something lovers of freedom all around the world should applaud.

As Joshua’s friend Derek said, “To defeat Darth Vader, you need to train a few Jedi.” I hope that all of those who have heard the story of Joshua Wong take that sentiment to heart and be the ones to stand up against injustice. Whether you lead your high school in a protest, or start your own political party, you too can take on a superpower, just like Joshua. And thanks to the incredible Director, Joe Piscatella, Joshua’s story can inspire the next generation of meddling kids.


JOE PISCATELLA:  Thank you, Daniel, for that lovely setup. Thank you to the Nation Institute, to the Ridenhour Foundation. Thank you to the Fertel Foundation for honoring me today. I look at the names of past and present honorees, and I’m both humbled and inspired, because it’s an amazing group of people that I’m just astonished when I see my name listed among them. So thank you to all of them.

I make films about unlikely people who stand up to enormous power structures. Typically, it tends to be students. And that’s a little bit of—It’s ironic. Because when I was Daniel’s age, when I was in high school, I was told, “You can make a difference in the world when you become an adult.” We were told, if you wanted to have a voice, you had to start out as a reporter, and you had to work your way up. And finally, if you’re lucky, be able to write for the New York Times to be able to influence. You had to go to law school. You had to be a policymaker. You had to become an adult to make change. And what I am so inspired about with this current generation is, they’re not waiting to make those changes.


Joshua Wong was 14 when they announced that communist party education was coming to Hong Kong. And his parents’ generation, they shrugged, and they said, “You can’t fight China. What are you going to do?” And Joshua used his allowance. He bought a bullhorn. He ultimately got 120,000 kids to occupy communist party headquarters for nine days, and he won. And instead of backing down, he then doubled down when he was 17. And he said, “You promised us democracy at the handover in 1997. I want it now.” And he got 13,000 kids to skip school, led them back again into communist party headquarters, ultimately got a half a million people in the streets of Hong Kong, and shut down Central District for 79 days. And he lost.

While Joshua was awaiting his jail sentence, because in Hong Kong you cannot publicly assemble in the way that he got people to publicly assemble, he started his own political party, even though he was not old enough to run. And he got his candidate elected. I look at what Joshua has done, and I think, what was I doing when I was a teenager? [laughter]

I made a film prior to this called #Chicago Girl. It was about a 19 year old girl in Chicago who helped run the Syrian Revolution. And we followed her. And we also followed kids within her social network on the ground in Syria, watched as their relationships developed online, and ultimately, at the end of the film, everybody had to make a decision of what was their weapon of choice, Facebook or an AK-47?

And we did a screening right after the film came out. We did a screening, we were invited to a screening in the Hague. And it was a very esteemed audience. It was members from the International Criminal Court. There were members of the UN. There was very high profile people from Amnesty International. It was a “who’s who” crowd in the human rights world. And we had only screened the film a few times. I hadn’t done a lot of Q and As yet.
And the film ended, and I went up to do my Q and A. And the first question I got was from a gentleman who was probably in his 50s. And he raised his hand, and he said, “I think in the grand scheme of the Syrian Revolution, you cannot make the argument that she has made any difference, this girl in your film.” And it certainly—It wasn’t even a question. It was a statement to me. And it was not how I wanted to kick off this Q and A in front of a very esteemed group.

And before I could answer, two girls in the back row, who couldn’t have been more than 14, stood up, and they said, “Sir, if you cannot see that she has affected the lives of those she is connected with, you can no longer be a part of the conversation on how to help Syria tonight.” And I thought, “This is a movement.” That’s the moment I knew that this was a movement.

And I get asked all the time, “Why do young people starting these movements matter?” To change the world, you have to believe that you can. And that’s where this generation, I think, is going to do amazing things. So thank you.