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Gate of Heaven

A Tiananmen Square documentary is the holiday movie of the year

by Charles Taylor

THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE. Directed by Richard Gordon and Carma Hilton. Written by Gérémie Barme and John Crowley. A Long Bow Group release. At the Museum of Fine Arts, January 10 through 15.

The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Richard Gordon and Carma Hilton's magnificent and devastating three-hour documentary on the 1989 Chinese democracy movement, which culminated with the tragedy at Tiananmen Square, has the richness, clarity, and complexity that only the best documentaries afford. Comprising newsreel footage, amateur video, and interviews with participants, the movie plunges us into a situation that most of us thought we knew, and it stirs up all sorts of unresolvable feelings. The film started a ruckus last fall when China demanded that it be removed from the New York Film Festival if the festival also wished to show Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad. To their credit, the festival organizers refused. (Shanghai Triad was shown, but Chinese authorities refused to let Zhang attend.) After the emptiness of most of the holiday films, The Gate of Heavenly Peace turns out to be the movie event of the season. It is certainly one of the great documentaries of the past 20 years.

In the most basic sense, The Gate of Heavenly Peace is the story of faces. A few minutes into the film, you're told what a shock it was to the Chinese people -- used to having their leaders hide, faceless and omnipotent, behind the walls of the Imperial City -- when Mao greeted them face to face in 1949 in Tiananmen to proclaim China a People's Republic. And you understand the bitter irony of the way Mao, once ensconced in power, followed the lead of the emperors he decried and withdrew from the people behind those same walls. What was left of Mao in the square where he astonished the Chinese was that famous huge portrait -- imperious, impersonal, and unchanging -- surveying its domain, while the real Mao sank into corruption and repression.

The film is the story of how the students of Beijing forced the Chinese government to reveal its true face. And of the beauty and daring and foolishness in the way they made no attempt to hide their own faces: Wu'er Kaixi, one of the student leaders, addressing a spontaneous rally at the beginning of the democracy movement, identified himself to the crowd and thus to the security forces videotaping the rally.

For anyone whose hearts went out to the students during those six breathless weeks in the spring of 1989, it's nearly impossible not to be thrilled by the charisma and bravery of student leaders like Wu'er, Chai Ling, and Wang Dan, or of Han Dongfang, leader of the workers' union that was formed in sympathetic response to the students' call for democracy. The thread that runs through their interviews is their disgust with the blind loyalty and deference expected in this "people's republic." Their audacity was in acting as if China were for the people. When we see Wu'er talking back to premier Li Peng, in a meeting that Li had granted the hunger-striking students, reminding him that they are meeting because the students called for dialogue, not because of the premier's noblesse oblige, it's deliriously exciting. What, you think, would it feel like to be able to talk so freely to your leaders? And how, having done that, could you ever be satisfied with anything less?

If Gordon and Hilton had done nothing more than capture the thrill of the students' defiance, The Gate of Heavenly Peace might have been merely a recapitulation of what many of us felt watching these events unfold. In the face of China's denial of the massacre (and China's strict control of news has made an exact numbering of casualties nearly impossible), and in light of US reluctance to endanger business interests and diplomatic ties, Gordon and Hilton are themselves engaged in a battle for the meaning of these events. "Events do not deliver their meanings to us," says the narrator at the film's beginning, "they are always interpreted." What's brilliant and upsetting is that the filmmakers have chosen to commemorate the democracy movement not by simplifying its meaning but by making it almost painfully complex.

Gordon and Hilton reveal that the conflict of the movement was not just between the students and the government, but between the students and an older, more cautious generation of intellectual dissidents, and within the student organizations themselves. The movie lays the blame for the slaughter at the feet of the government. But Gordon and Hilton don't shy away from implying that the tragedy was even deeper than we assumed, a result of missed opportunities, past demons, and unyielding positions on both sides.

And though they're squarely on the side of the democracy movement, that doesn't keep them from trying to understand the opposition. We learn that Deng Xiaoping, attacked and reviled during Mao's Cultural Revolution, was forever after unable to experience dissent as anything other than a threat. We understand the fear of older intellectuals like writers Dai Qing and Liu Xiaobo that the students were putting themselves in a position that invited military attack. But we also understand how the students, who had put their lives on the line after (as Liu admits) Chinese intellectuals had for years failed to challenge the government, took offense when Dai, Liu, and others told them they must change their tactics -- even as we become aware of the danger Dai and Liu, who were both imprisoned and are still in China, are putting themselves in by appearing in this film. (And the danger Liu put himself in during the crackdown, conducting a hunger strike in the square and attempting a last-ditch negotiation with the military to allow the protesters safe passage out of Tiananmen.)

The heroism of any great protest movement is perhaps inseparable from its masochism. That's nowhere more evident than in Chai Ling's interview with an American journalist, conducted on May 28, just five days before the crackdown. Charismatic and committed, Chai (who refused to be interviewed for the film) is also romantic, reckless, impractical, and narcissistic, a Dostoyevskian figure. Although much of the crowd is following her lead, she rejects every avenue that might avert the final showdown, and she seems unconcerned about deciding the fate of others. So committed to the role of martyr she's already playing it, Chai says, "Only when the square is awash in blood will the people of China open their eyes." (In his book Mandate of Heaven, journalist Orville Schell, one of the film's producers, points out that much of the blood that flowed belonged to the citizens who poured into the street to stop troops from reaching the square.)

"The Chinese lack not ideals but the way to achieve them, not hearts but minds," says Wu Gouguang, a reformist party official ousted after championing the students. The Gate of Heavenly Peace comes down to the heartbreaking conflict between the romance of revolution and the unromantic slow alternative of working for change. What unites both sides is their shared sacrifice, the way Dai Qing and Liu Xiaobo can keep calling for calm, rational change even after being imprisoned. And though Wu'er Kaixi can boast, "There's never been a generation like ours. One that mocked the state, mocked the government, mocked the leaders," after the horrors he's witnessed, he can still say, "And there's never been a generation that has seen that the outside world is so beautiful."