Mountain of Memories

A documentary tale of Tiananmen Square makes art of history

Apted feels dramatic features are easier to make, to a large degree because fiction -- even fiction that's based on fact -- is so much easier to control. Indeed, Apted believes that, while making a documentary, a director often relies heavily on luck. In the case of a movie such as Bring on the Night, Apted's documentary about Sting's first post-Police concert tour, you aim your camera at something or someone you hope will turn out to be interesting, and pray that you're right. You are in big trouble if you miscalculate, because you have little to show for your investment of time, money and energy.

"I don't think I've ever actually started filming one that I had to junk," says Apted. "But that possibility is always in the back of your mind, you know. And there are other considerations as well. I mean, what would have happened if, while doing Incident at Oglala [a film about imprisoned Native American rights activist Leonard Peltier], I had found absolutely watertight evidence that Peltier really had been responsible for those murders? What would I have done? That's also always in your mind -- that the foundation of what you're doing will collapse in front of you."

Apted admits that he approached Moving the Mountain with a few preconceptions that didn't hold up under close scrutiny. But through the process of that scrutiny, Apted says, he -- and, he hopes, the audience for his documentary -- may gain a greater knowledge.

"While watching the media coverage about Tiananmen Square, I had got the feeling that there was a real sense of unity in the square," says Apted. "But after talking with these students, I found that, clearly, there wasn't. And also, I'd gotten the sense from the media that there was a real sense of purpose in the air. Now, this is not to diminish their courage or intent, but it seemed to me that their purpose was very ill-defined and very ad hoc. It was being made up by the hour.

"Which is a kind of wonderful insight into all great political events, I suppose. Whether it's the French Revolution or the Long March or the rise of Castro, there's a kind of conceit [on the part of] historians that there's a kind of sense to it all. But while talking to these students, you get the impression that there was no sense to it all. You get the impression that it was something that was just going along -- some of it they understood, some of it they didn't. And then things escalated, got out of hand, and they were in way over their heads.

"Once you understand that, in a way, it makes you want to re-evaluate all the other great events in history. You wonder, really, whether they do have much sense to them in the end."

Moving the Mountain.
Directed by Michael Apted.
Not rated.
83 minutes.

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