Trevor Klein CM ’24 landed in Hong Kong in late 2019 with one goal in mind: to contribute to the storytelling about the swelling protests capturing the world’s attention. With only a camera and a deep sympathy for the cause of the protesters, Klein sought out the stories behind the hundreds of masked faces he was coming to meet during his period of documentation and research.
Now, almost a year and a half later, his short documentary “Days Before the Dawn” premiered at the South Dakota Black Hills Film Festival on Feb. 18 and was accepted into the Tokyo International Short Film Festival.
“Days Before the Dawn” details the initial sparks of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong before the eruption of the 2019 protests. Using recorded interviews with activists and scholars in addition to on-the-ground footage, Klein created a linear narrative of the events leading to the conflict between the Chinese government and civilian protesters.
Klein’s initial interest in Hong Kong was related to its economics. However, the growing influence of mainland China in Hong Kong shifted his interest to action. To Klein, the events in Hong Kong signified a unique and powerful moment in history of a fight between the oppressor and the oppressed.
“The reason I really resonated with the people in Hong Kong was it was such a pure movement,” he said. “Not only was it a coalition of people from across different political ideologies, from left to right, economically, fighting against totalitarian rule, but there was a clear right and wrong.”
“The reason I really resonated with the people in Hong Kong was it was such a pure movement.” —Trevor Klein CM ’24
Klein also recognized how the portrayal of the protests by Western media was largely skewed to appeal to sensationalism. He wanted to contribute to the storytelling of the protests in a holistic manner — which meant not just focusing on the violent headlines.
Already taking a gap year, Klein decided to travel to Hong Kong in October 2019 but had a difficult time making connections to those heavily involved in the protest movement. After gathering limited footage, Klein made a short trailer for his documentary and was able to leverage more interviews using his more extensive resume. Determined to build a more comprehensive documentary, Klein went back to Hong Kong in January 2020.
It was in that time that Klein was able to glean the most valuable information and interviews. At protests, he talked to activists who connected him to other important figures, such as Joshua Wong, an iconic figure in the pro-democracy movement who was sentenced to more than a year in prison in 2020 for his involvement in a protest.
“I think the more time that I spent and the more friends that I made, it was at a point where I would see headlines, and the person who just went to jail wasn’t just [an activist] and I’d seen their name, it was someone who gave me a couple hours of their day to sit down with me for an interview. It was someone who maybe I just saw across the street during a protest,” he said.
Klein noted that the dangerous environment contributed to a feeling of distrust aimed at strangers. Because of this, he had to develop a reputation for himself in order for interviewees to trust him and his motives. As he interviewed more activists and his web of connections in the community grew, he felt his reputation as a journalist solidify.
“I wanted there to be a flicker of hope. I wanted there to be a feeling almost like David and Goliath.” —Trevor Klein CM ’24
In order to know the schedule of protests happening in Hong Kong, he used the encrypted messaging service Telegram, like other protesters. The app also allowed protesters to make decisions in real time: On the app they could vote on whether to move to another area or to continue to occupy an area.
Although the events detailed in “Days Before the Dawn” are heavy and often devoid of optimism, Klein decided to build out the story in a mold of hope.
“I wanted there to be a flicker of hope. I wanted there to be a feeling almost like David and Goliath. It’s that idea of this pure struggle, the struggle for an objective good, or something that most decent people will look at and say, ‘Yeah, they’re fighting for something good.’ And even if you don’t agree with all their methods, you could agree with the ends that they’re trying to achieve.”
Looking to the future, Klein wants to continue to explore investigative journalism via documentary. He is currently working on the second part of the film, which focuses on the Hong Kong protests from 2019 to 2020.