Whether he's following the fictional adventures of a modern-day wild child in Nell, or casting a sympathetic eye at a real-life rock star on the edge in Bring on the Night, director Michael Apted approaches filmmaking with the same robust appreciation for narrative nuance and anthropological detail.
It's difficult, if not impossible, to think of another contemporary filmmaker who has divided his time so evenly and consistently between dramatic and nonfiction features. And it is even harder to recall any recent documentary that has elevated talking-heads reportage to the level of art form as grippingly as Apted's latest effort, Moving the Mountain.
The film examines the Chinese democracy movement that was crushed -- temporarily, at least -- by the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square. But even if you managed to devour all the hours that CNN and other news services devoted to this tragedy, you'll still find much that is fresh and startling in Apted's movie.
Using an artful mix of archival footage and newly recorded interviews, with just a sprinkling of dramatic re-creations, Apted places the events of 1989 in a larger historical context -- and, perhaps more impressively, examines the ambiguous aftermath of an event that was far more complex than initial accounts made it appear.
"I think people are surprised by how emotional the film is," Apted says, "and how revealing it is in terms of character. It isn't just another rehash of the event." Apted adds that he's always had the ambition of taking some well-known political event, and looking at it through a participant's eyes, excluding all kinds of professionals, such as journalists or politicians or economists or whatever. Specifically, in the case of Moving the Mountain, the director "wanted the audience to feel the piece was character-driven, not incident-driven .... And I think I pulled that off. I think people come out of the film feeling as though they've seen something familiar with different eyes. Or with a different point of view."
Several student dissidents who participated in the Tiananmen Square protest are interviewed throughout Mountain. The film pays particularly close attention to Wang Chaohua -- who, at 37, was the oldest of the student leaders -- and Wu'er Kaixi, an education student whose telegenic charm made him the de facto spokesman of the student movement. While posing as a tourist, Apted also managed to visit Beijing to film a secret interview with Wang Dan, a student leader who served a lengthy prison term and continues to endure official harassment.
But the largest part of Mountain focuses on student dissident Li Lu, once number 18 on the Chinese government's most-wanted list. Interviewed in the U.S. -- where, like Wang Chaohua and Wu'er Kaixi, he currently lives as a political refugee -- Li recalls his formative years during the Cultural Revolution. He endured a difficult childhood as the son of "counter-revolutionary" parents: his father, a Russian-trained engineer, was denounced as a spy; his mother, the daughter of a former landowner, was branded a hereditary class enemy.
Years later, while studying economics at Nanjing University, Li heard of the thousands of students who were flocking into Beijing's Tiananmen Square. What had begun as a spontaneous gathering to mourn the death of former Communist Party secretary Hu Yaobang, a progressive reformer, had turned into a massive protest against the repressive Chinese leadership. Suddenly -- miraculously -- it appeared that people his own age were planting the first seeds of democracy. And Li wanted to be there when it flowered.
The rest, alas, is history.
"Most of these kids [in Tiananmen Square] were brought up without any kind of conventional family life as we understand it," Apted says. "Through the Cultural Revolution, they all lost their parents. They were either taken away from their parents, or their parents just disappeared .... Look at these students in Tiananmen Square. They were so incredibly young -- most of them were only 20 years old -- and here they were taking on the Western media and the Chinese government. And actually having debates with the Chinese government. And they were kids.
"I think, actually, they're much more sophisticated in the political sense because they've been brought up by the state. They've had to come head-to-head with political issues from a very, very early age .... And because they lost these people they felt attached to, well, I think it's quite possible that would induce in them a rather more fearless attitude toward life than the rest of us have."
This process of connecting cause and effect on film has been of great concern to Apted from the very earliest days of his career. After studying law and history at Cambridge University, the British-born filmmaker landed a job as a researcher at Granada Television in 1963. While there, he selected and interviewed 14 seven-year-old children for 7 Up, a short film that subsequently spawned an extraordinary series of internationally acclaimed documentaries about growing up within the British class system. Ten years later, in 1973, Apted made his first dramatic feature, Triple Echo, with Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed. Since then, he has divided his time among lavish Hollywood productions, intimate small-budget dramas and ambitious documentaries. In Apted's view, working in features teaches him ways to discipline his documentaries with dramatic structure. (While making Moving the Mountain, he decided to depict Li Lu's traumatic childhood through dramatic re-creations "even though it's always a gamble to mix reconstructions with documentary footage.") On the other hand, working in documentaries keeps him mindful of the need for verisimilitude in his fiction.
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.
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"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.