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Freedom Swimmer

In order to understand the present, we need to shed light on the past.

FREEDOM SWIMMER documents a mass migration story from the 20th century, which is relatively untold in the Western world — and offers context for a city in turmoil, today.

A granddaughter asks her grandfather to recount his journey from China, swimming to Hong Kong in the 1970’s.

One of two million mainland residents who swam across the southern sea border near Shenzhen, it was a decade-long struggle to leave. Many others died trying or were captured and sent to labour camps. He was one of the lucky ones.

From the 1950’s to 1980’s Hong Kong was a symbol of freedom to many Chinese, glimpsed across the water. The grandfather, like many other refugees, went on to have a successful life in Hong Kong and was part of the working-class movement that powered local industry and helped transform the city into a financial success story.

FREEDOM SWIMMER explores the effect of past cultural trauma, allowing the audience to find a new perspective on the current situation. It reflects the depth of a symbol that is ‘freedom’ – that Hong Kong both represents and holds onto so tightly.

On a wider-scale, this is a universal story of the dispossessed – what it takes to flee your country, what it means to fight for freedom, what it is like to leave everything in hope of liberty.

Donate via Documentary Australia Foundation

Credits

Written and directed by Olivia Martin-McGuire
Produced by Brooke Tia Silcox, Ron Dyens and Olivia Martin-McGuire
Graphic Authorship by Agnes Patron
Composition by Pierre Oberkampf

Credits

Written and directed by Olivia Martin-McGuire
Produced by Brooke Tia Silcox, Ron Dyens and Olivia Martin-McGuire
Graphic Authorship by Agnes Patron
Composition by Pierre Oberkampf

Freedom Swimmer

In order to understand the present, we need to shed light on the past.

FREEDOM SWIMMER documents a mass migration story from the 20th century, which is relatively untold in the Western world — and offers context for a city in turmoil, today.

A granddaughter asks her grandfather to recount his journey from China, swimming to Hong Kong in the 1970’s.

One of two million mainland residents who swam across the southern sea border near Shenzhen, it was a decade-long struggle to leave. Many others died trying or were captured and sent to labour camps. He was one of the lucky ones.

From the 1950’s to 1980’s Hong Kong was a symbol of freedom to many Chinese, glimpsed across the water. The grandfather, like many other refugees, went on to have a successful life in Hong Kong and was part of the working-class movement that powered local industry and helped transform the city into a financial success story.

FREEDOM SWIMMER explores the effect of past cultural trauma, allowing the audience to find a new perspective on the current situation. It reflects the depth of a symbol that is ‘freedom’ – that Hong Kong both represents and holds onto so tightly.

On a wider-scale, this is a universal story of the dispossessed – what it takes to flee your country, what it means to fight for freedom, what it is like to leave everything in hope of liberty.

Donate via Documentary Australia Foundation

Festivals

  • Winner Best Animation, Aspen Shortsfest, Academy & BAFTA Qualifying, April 2022
  • Winner Ellen Award (Visionary Filmmaking), Aspen Shortsfest, April 2022
  • Winner Yoram Gross Award for Best Short Animation, Academy & BAFTA Qualifying, Sydney Film Festival, November 2021
  • Winner Best International Short Film, Academy Accredited, Doc Edge Film Festival, New Zealand, June 2022
  • Winner, Unifrance Short Film Award, Grand Action Prize, Cannes International Film Festival, France, June 2022
  • Winner Best Short Documentary, Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC), March 2022
  • Winner Film House Award (Visionary Filmmaking), Athens International Film and Video Festival, Ohio, April 2022
  • Winner Best Short Film, Millennium Docs Against Gravity Film Festival, Poland, May 2022
  • Winner Best Short Film, Plein la Bobine Festival, France, May 2022
  • Winner Best Short Film, Cardiff Animation Festival, Wales, April 2022
  • Winner Best Mixed Media, Spark Film Festival, Vancouver, October 2021
  • Winner Best Creative, Kendal Mountain Film Festival, UK, November 2021
  • Winner, Craft Award (Excellence in Filmmaking), Academy Qualifying, St Kilda Film Festival, June 2022
  • Winner, One World Media Awards, London, June 2022
  • Winner, Palm Springs Film Festival, Bridging the Borders Award, California, June 2022
  • Winner, Leiden Shorts Audience Award, the Netherlands, June 2022
  • Special Mention Best Short Film, Movies that Matter, the Hague, the Netherlands, 2022
  • Special Mention Best Short Film, Academy and BAFTA Qualifying 19th In the Palace International Film Festival, Bulgaria, June 2022
  • Official Selection, Academy & BAFTA Accredited ® Melbourne International Film Festival, August 2021
  • Official Selection, Loudoun Arts Festival, Virginia, September 2021
  • Official Selection, DC Shorts, Washington, September 2021
  • Official Selection, Spark Film Festival, Vancouver, October 2021
  • Official Selection, AIX En-Provence France, November 2021
  • Official Selection, Academy & BAFTA Accredited ® PÖFF Festival Estonia, November 2021
  • Official Selection, Academy Accredited ® DOCNYC, November 2021
  • Official Selection, Kendal Mountain Film Festival, November 2021
  • Official Selection, Academy & BAFTA Accredited ® Sydney Film Festival, Australia, November 2021
  • Official Selection, Animateka International Animation Festival, Slovenia, December 2021
  • Official Selection, Academy & BAFTA Accredited ® Flickerfest, January 2022
  • Official Selection, BAFTA Accredited ® International Film Festival Rotterdam, January 2022
  • Official Selection, Minimalen Short Film Festival, Trondheim, Norway January 2022
  • Official Selection, Academy & BAFTA Accredited ® Slamdance, January 2022
  • Official Selection, Brussels International Film Festival, Brussels February 2022
  • Official Selection, Festival of Animation de Rennes, France, February 2022
  • Official Selection, Asia Pacific Triennial, Queensland, March 2022
  • Official Selection, Academy Accredited ® Santa Barbara, California, March 2022
  • Official Selection, LAS Animation Festival, Berkeley, California, March 2022
  • Official Selection, Mecal Pro, Barcelona International Short & Animation Festival, March 2022
  • Official Selection, Salem Film Festival, Massachusetts, March 2022
  • Official Selection, Tricky Women Film Festival, Austria, March 2022
  • Official Selection, Boulder Film Festival, Colorado, March 2022
  • Official Selection, Veterans Film Festival, Sydney, Australia, March 2022
  • Official Selection, Ennesimo Film Festival, Modena, Italy, March 2022
  • Official Selection, Academy Accredited ® Athens International Film and Video Festival, April 2022
  • Official Selection, Docudays UA International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, Kyiv, Ukraine, April 2022
  • Official Selection, Academy & BAFTA Accredited ® Aspen Shortsfest, Colorado, April 2022
  • Official Selection, Academy Accredited ® In the Palace, Bulgaria, April 2022
  • Official Selection, Cardiff Animation Festival, Wales, April 2022
  • Official Selection, Academy Accredited ® Florida International Film Festival, Florida, April 2022
  • Official Selection, Fantaspoa, Brazil, April 2022
  • Official Selection, Academy Accredited ® RiverRun Film Festival, North Carolina, April 2022
  • Official Selection, BAFTA Accredited ® Flatpack, April 2022
  • Official Selection, CinefestOz Albany, April 2022
  • Official Selection, Movies that Matter Festival, the Hague, the Netherlands, April 2022
  • Official Selection, Academy Accredited ® Cleveland International Film Festival, April 2022
  • Official Selection, Academy Accredited ® St Kilda Film Festival, Melbourne, May 2022
  • Official Selection, Millennium Docs Against Gravity Film Festival, Poland, May 2022
  • Official Selection, Lichter Film Festival, Frankfurt, May 2022
  • Official Selection, BAFTA Accredited ® Stuttgart International Festival of Animated Film, May 2022
  • Official Selection, Academy Accredited ® LA Asia Pacific Film Festival, May 2022
  • Official Selection, BAFTA Accredited ® Carmarthen Bay Film Festival, Wales, May 2022
  • Official Selection, Cannes – UniFrance Short Film Award, May 2022
  • Official Selection, Austrian Department of Amnesty international, May 2022
  • Official Selection, Sigmund Freud Museum, Vienna, May 2022
  • Official Selection, Lyon Projection, ARTE, May 2022
  • Official Selection, One World Media Awards, London, May 2022
  • Official Selection, PyeongChang Int’l Peace Film Festival, Korea, June 2022
  • Official Selection, Forum des images, France, June 2022
  • Official Selection, Plein la Bobine, France, June 2022
  • Official Selection, Academy Accredited ® Palm Springs Film Festival, June 2022
  • Official Selection, Academy Accredited ® Doc Edge Film Festival, New Zealand, June 2022
  • Official Selection, Academy Accredited ® San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, June 2022
  • Official Selection, Independent Film Festival Ypsilanti, Michigan, June 2022
  • Official Selection, Huesca International Film Festival, June 2022
  • Official Selection, Leiden Shorts, the Netherlands, June 2022
  • Official Selection, Anibar Film Festival, Kosovo, July 2022
  • Official Selection, Maui Film Festival, Hawaii, July 2022
  • Official Selection, International Short Film Competition, Freedom Film Festival Radom, Poland, July 2022
  • Official Selection, BAFTA Accredited ® Edinburgh Film Festival, Scotland, August 2022

Directors Biography

Olivia is an Australian-British documentary filmmaker and photographer living in London who spent five years living in China and Hong Kong. FREEDOM SWIMMER is her second film. Her first film, the documentary ChinaLove premiered at Sydney Film Festival and DOCNYC and was nominated for Best Australian Documentary and competed in competition at the Asia Pacific Awards. Her photographic work has been exhibited in various international galleries, festivals, museums and publications.

Directors Statement

As a storyteller I am interested in cultural and intergenerational trauma and how lived experience informs and affects behaviour and, to an extent, the resulting cycles and patterns.

I am interested in exploring what’s behind events and current narratives – and how understanding or empathising with these stories helps us better connect with each other.

When this story came to me, I was living in Hong Kong, after a period living in China. I had recently finished a feature documentary exploring contemporary China through its wedding industry. It was a totally different topic and world – and yet what was behind this new account in Freedom Swimmer was a familiar echo.

I felt this story offered another window into the changes facing Hong Kong now – by understanding the past a little more. The film is based on a journey across water in search of freedom, that took more than a decade to get right. It feels like there’s a lack of understanding of the refugee experience in the Western world.

It is a story that those interviewed wanted to tell – but feared the consequences of doing so. As an outsider, I believed I was in a unique position to help them tell it. – so this was a unique opportunity to help the story have a voice.

The film is based on a series of audio interviews from intergenerational family members in Hong Kong. The Interviewees requested anonymity, so I recorded audio interviews with several other freedom swimmers and protestors, as well as some who had chosen to migrate to the UK. This allowed me to blend specific details so individual stories weren’t directly attributable.

“There is no fear, when there is no hope.”

Something else that seemed striking to me when I interviewed both the freedom swimmers and the current-day protestors was the parallels and commonalities in language.

Both generations talked about their situations as “being hopeless” but being “prepared to die” for their efforts. They talked about camaraderie or “the community” that existed for those that pushed back then and now – how this became their “freedom”. There were also symbolic parallels in relation to actions or objects, that became motifs in the film.

The fluid, leaderless and faceless protests now, mirrored the journeys in the dark, makeshift tactics or tools and group pragmatism that existed amongst the freedom swimmers. Even the protestors call, “to be water” seemed connected to that original journey from the mainland.

Blending hand-drawn animation and film, the symbolic parallels are tightly woven for both generations, as the story slips between the past and the present.