Thursday, July 01, 2021

Moving the Mountain: Documenting the Tiananmen Square Massacre

Today, the CCP celebrates one hundred years of censorship, religious repression, mass murder, and genocide. It is a grim anniversary. June 4th was also always a day for sad memorials in Hong Kong, but this year, the CCP-controlled government completely banned the annual commemorations of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The world remembers anyway. We should also remember the great filmmaker Michael Apted (best-known for the 7-Up documentary series, the Oscar-winning Coal Miner’s Daughter, and the Bond film, The World is Not Enough), who passed away earlier this year. Unlike his peers who sold-out to the CCP’s influence, Apted documented the Massacre and its aftermath in Moving the Mountain, which is not on any streaming service (funny that), but it is “findable” online.

In 1994, the Massacre was still vividly raw in the memories of the student leaders who survived. Li Lu serves as Apted’s focal figure, because his life so perfectly encapsulates Chinese history. He was born one month before the start of the Cultural Revolution that eventually rendered him an orphan. He was then the only member of his adopted family to survive the Tangshan Earthquake, enduring the government’s notoriously indifferent and incompetent response. Perhaps understandably, he took inspiration from dissident Wei Jingsheng, who was imprisoned by Deng’s supposedly liberalized regime.

Apted largely chronicles the events from Li’s perspective, but he also incorporates the testimony of his surviving colleagues, Wang Chaohua, Wu’er Kaixi, and Chai Ling. At the time,
Moving was mildly controversial for its short dramatizations (mainly from Li’s childhood and his escape from Mainland China as part of Operation Yellowbird), but these passages look pretty conventional today.

Perhaps what
Moving does better than other films chronicling Tiananmen is the way Apted fully contextualizes the Massacre in China’s historical timeline. He and Li show how the tragedy of June 4th was shaped by the Cultural Revolution and the short-lived Democracy Wall under Deng. Conceived as an equivalent of Khrushchev’s De-Stalinization campaign, Deng quickly cracked down on the Democracy Wall when Wei and other activists posted more than mere cosmetic criticism of the government. Apted and the former student leaders he interviewed also convey a vivid sense of the reign of terror that followed the Massacre. In fact, they speculate more students were probably killed during the round-up.

Apted gets his interview subjects to really open up. Their recollections are often quite poignant and sometimes truly chilling. This is high-quality documentary filmmaking, produced by Sting’s wife Trudy Styler and featuring evocative but not intrusive music from Liu Sola and Bill Laswell.

You also have to give the late, great Apted credit for documenting the Massacre and subsequent oppression. Granted, studios were not so cringe-inducingly subservient to Beijing’s wishes in the 1990s, but you will still be hard-pressed to find Hollywood films or TV shows addressing the Massacre, even back then. Frankly, we can only think of episodes of
Macgyver, Touched by an Angel, and Psi Factor (which was technically Canadian). Regardless, Moving the Mountain is an excellent documentary that deserves to be seen, especially on July 1.