The Film

Jerry White
The Independent, January/February 1996

The Independent is published by the Foundation for Independent Video and Film (FIVF), and the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF).

Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon have spent the better part of their careers documenting life in modern China, so it was inevitable that they turn their attention to the student democracy movement and Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989. The result is The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a scrupulously researched investigation of the bloody standoff between students and government officials. Unlike the news reportage of the day, the three-hour documentary digs deep, revealing where the movement's roots lie: we're shown the history of previous student movements in China, the government's fickle shifts in policy towards political reform, and the catalytic impact of reformer Hu Yaobang's funeral. And unlike more recent documentaries, The Gate of Heavenly Peace takes great pains to tease out the various strands on both sides, revealing the internal factions within the government and student leadership in a way that vastly complicates and more accurately reflects the course of the events.

Proof of the film's evenhandedness has come in the form of denunciations both from leaders within the pro-democracy student movement and from the Chinese government. But the controversy that surrounded it for so many months - culminating in China's retaliation by blocking director Zhang Yimou from attending the New York Film Festival - should not overshadow the value of Hinton and Gordon's research. Their work has made available an entirely new body of primary material on the student uprising - including extensive interviews, Chinese government newscasts, home videos, and music videos - all of which bring to life facets of the event that few in the West had bothered to consider.

Carma Hinton occupies an unusual place as a cultural intermediary between East and West, having been born in China to American parents (Chinese is her first language) and living there until age 21, when she moved to the United States to attend the University of Pennsylvania. Her father, William Hinton, is a prominent China scholar, and before starting a filmmaking career she accompanied him on his visits to Long Bow, a rural village that served as the microcosm through which he examined China's land reform in his books Fanshen and Shenfan. Carma Hinton would later return to Long Bow as a filmmaker, where she and husband Richard Gordon made all their films prior to The Gate of Heavenly Peace. Beginning with Stilt Dancers of Long Bow Village (1981), Gordon, who was trained as a still photographer, has acted as primary cinematographer on all their films, while Hinton conducts the interviews.

The epic political struggles depicted in Gate are a departure from Hinton and Gordon's more intimate portraits in One Village in China (1987), a film trilogy that examines the life of a Catholic village doctor (To Taste One Hundred Herbs), the status of women in Chinese society (Small Happiness), and the de-collectivization of land in the mid-eighties (All Under Heaven). Each delves into cultural, economic, and spiritual issues in great detail, using interviews, voiceover narration, and lyrical photography to create a portrait of a Chinese people during a time of enormous change, when the past collides with the future. But none approaches the ambitious scale of The Gate of Heavenly Peace. Nor had the two filmmakers tackled an archival project previously, let alone one this size.

Hinton and Gordon began thinking about doing a film as soon as the monumental events of May 1989 began unfolding. "It was not an easy decision to get into something like this," Hinton admits. "I knew that any documentary - to say nothing of something of this scale, between the funding and the research and the actual making of the film - would probably take years of our lives. Once we decided, it really did take five or six years." A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities "to push the frontier of scholarship," Hinton recalls, is what got the project moving. "We had to work with scholars to do original research on all fronts," Hinton recalls. "That's impossible to do without the kind of support we got from the NEH." Hinton also credits crucial startup monies from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. Funding from the Independent Television Service came in at a later stage.

Universal Pictures also provided $150,000 in seed money, and that has complicated the distribution picture. According to the filmmakers, their contract with the studio states that if any company other than Universal distributes the film to commercial theaters, the money must be paid back. Since few distributors willing to pick up a three-hour documentary on China would provide an advance that large, it's Universal or no one for theatrical distribution. And Universal passed after seeing a 30-minute clip (Hinton notes that "to revise it for their standards would make it unacceptable to our standards"). So the film will probably be consigned to nontheatrical distribution and nonprofit art houses. Hinton also points out that "paying them back is not the only hurdle for theatrical release." There's also the matter of licensing fees for all that archival footage, which mounts considerably when theatrical rights are added.

Their primary goal was to create a credible record of the confusing and still widely contested facts of the uprising, one that draws on a truly diverse pool of subjects. "The number-one concern we had was for the film to be a forum for a range of different voices talking about what China needs," says Hinton. Those voices were largely absent from Western news coverage of the uprising. "One thing that struck me was that hardly any Chinese got to really speak," Hinton recalls. "Mainly it was American anchors or reporters explaining what the Chinese wanted or did and didn't do.... You could hardly hear any Chinese voices finish an idea, or even a sentence." Any time a Chinese person started to speak, Gordon says, the anchors tended to "look for a cutaway." Gate features interviews with student leaders, union leaders, academics, former government officials, the parent of a slain student, and a pop star from Taiwan who took part in the hunger strikes on the square, among others. While many of the key players go before the duo's camera (including union leader Han Dongfang, literary critic Liu Xiaobo, and reformist politician Wu Guoguang), Gordon notes that "We talked to a lot of different types of participants, people who are not well known and didn't have anything to gain or lose by what they said. And often times those are the best sources."

In trying to make sense of the diverse array of testimony, Gordon says, "The first level was to get the facts straight. That took years." Finding out what really happened turned out to be far more difficult than either had anticipated. "We found there's just a huge amount of disinformation," says Gordon, "so we had to talk to as many people as we could, because often times people would make self-serving statements. In other cases, people would say things that I think they genuinely believed to be true, but we found by reconstructing events on video from several different perspectives that they were not true."

They also wanted to avoid sensationalism and present a sober, even-handed portrait of the uprising. "We didn't want to tell a simple chronological story where the drum beats faster and faster as you approach the night of June 3," says Gordon. They also wanted to dispel the impression that the army shot their way "all the way to the center of Tiananmen Square," says Hinton, and "slaughtered their way to the monument, where thousands of students were." She adds, "The reality was much more complicated." The film has been criticized for being too nice to the government, but as Hinton responds, "Just because they opened fire on peaceful protesters doesn't mean that you can say anything."

Filming in China on a topic still so sensitive to the government presented many difficulties. (The Chinese government still refuses to discuss the June 4 massacre and denies that anyone other than soldiers were killed.) Not the least of these obstacles was getting people to talk on camera, since there still is the fear of reprisal from the government. But, according to Hinton, many people are "courageously staying in China and trying to push the limits of free speech, of intellectual debate. They were very open and above board about what they believe in, and they feel it's their duty to speak out." Anyone who appeared on camera or gave them footage was free to back out at almost any stage. In a few cases, Hinton recalls, it was the filmmakers who pulled the plug. "Even though the person was willing to go on the record, we thought the situation was a little too precarious and decided not to do it." Gordon summed up their attitude by saying, "We have always believed that people's ongoing lives were more important than the development of our film."

Assembling the miles of film and video footage was a massive organizational task. "We were a bit naive when we started," Gordon confesses. "We thought we could go through about seventy to one hundred hours of material, both network and home video. It turned out we had to go through almost four times that." Some of the most striking footage was taken with consumer-grade video cameras, especially shots during the bloodiest and most chaotic parts of the massacre. "Because of the [economic] reforms," Hinton explains, "there were some cameras in private hands, whereas that was unheard of before." Nonetheless, this was not easy material to locate. "There's no one place to go," says Gordon. "We just tried to put out as wide a net as possible."

In trying to gain access to network news broadcasts and other archival footage, the filmmakers found many common assumptions to be unfounded. Take, for example, the ease of dealing with American versus Chinese TV networks. According to Gordon, "It's much easier to function in China than amongst capitalist barracudas." He cites their chief bogeyman as being CNN, saying they were "just a nightmare to deal with." Ultimately, the archival research took on a truly transnational character, with research also being conducted in Russia and Spain. It was a Spanish TV crew that shot the most interesting footage the night of June 3, when the Chinese army was ordered to recapture Tiananmen Square. "It took literally months to get access to their material, just because they're so disorganized," says Gordon. "We had to send people into Spain to work with them personally, because you can't work from a distance. "

Altogether Hinton and Gordon amassed about 400 hours of footage, making theirs the largest single archive on this subject. The future of this material remains in question, although Gordon is enthusiastic about its potential. "We have a lot of the extant material on student demonstrations, so that one could, later on, provide that to scholars." Unfortunately, says Gordon, "A lot of the best footage ... we can't distribute, because it's shot by network crews and protected by international copyright." Again, the Chinese material is far easier to distribute, since they are not signatories to the Berne Convention, an international copyright agreement, and therefore do not have as many restrictions on what cannot be copied and redistributed. Despite Hinton arid Gordon's aspiration to create an archive of the footage they amassed, it remains in dry dock. "One of our hopes is that, since we had spent so much time with it and databased it and in many cases translated it," says Gordon, "we can find some good homes for it. We're really hoping that we can find an enlightened foundation or patron to allow us to make it accessible to literally thousands of potential users." Their de facto archive contains not only footage of demonstrations (reaching back to the twenties), but Chinese newscasts, music videos, and other images that, as Gordon says, build up a sense of the fabric of Chinese life.

Criticism of The Gate of Heavenly Peace first started to hit the fan a good five months before its premiere at the New York Film Festival last September. The filmmaking duo have been fighting battles of one kind or another ever since.

The first wave of controversy centered around their depiction of the divisions within the student camp and how one faction, led by Chai Ling, was pushing for a confrontation with the Army despite the inevitably deadly consequences. An especially prickly point concerns a TV interview given days before the massacre by Chai Ling in which she says, "What we are actually hoping for is bloodshed... Only when the square is awash with blood will the people of China open their eyes." (Chai, who currently lives in Boston, refused the filmmakers' repeated requests for an interview.) A debate ensued in the New York Times over the exact translation of this statement. It began with a New York Times article on April 30, 1995, about Chai and the dissidents six years after the event. Journalist Patrick Tyler quoted the statement and questioned some of the student leaders' tactics. Chai claimed in a letter to the editor published the following week that the English equivalent of her statement is not "hoping for bloodshed" but "what we can expect next is bloodshed." Hinton, who included this interview in the film, wrote to the Times , "The Chinese word 'qidai' can only mean 'hoping for' and any native speaker of Chinese would agree"; her letter, however, was not published.

Just a few days before this skirmish, Chai published an article attacking the as-yet-unfinished film in World Journal, a North American, pro-dissident Chinese language newspaper. It was reprinted in several dissident newspapers as well as the Hong Kong journal Ming Pao Monthly . She wrote, "Certain individuals, for the sake of gaining approval of the [Chinese] authorities, have racked their brains for ways and means to come up with policies for them. And there is another person with a pro-Communist history [Hinton] who has been hawking [her] documentary film for crude commercial gain by taking things out of context and trying to show up something new, unreasonably turning history on its head and calling black white."

This was the start of a "virtual mini-mountain" of condemnations of the film by Chinese student dissidents, according to Geremie Barmé, one of the film's scriptwriters and author of an upcoming book In the Red: Studies in Contemporary Chinese Culture. Significantly, these all came long before The Gate of Heavenly Peace had been completed. Hinton and Gordon both point to the sad irony that the proponents of democratic reform are using inflammatory and defensive rhetoric to stifle opposition to anything they do. Hinton's Chinese Communist education taught her that compromise is bad, she explains, so people do not believe one can be critical of something that is in some ways positive. The students defaming the film "are the children of the Communists," Gordon notes. "They have become what they hate."

Next, the Chinese government condemned the film, "almost as could be predicted," Hinton wryly notes. Again these statements came before the film was finished, without anyone in the government having seen it. When Chinese officials caught wind that Gate was to be shown in the New York Film Festival, an official from the Chinese Consulate in New York went to program director Richard Peña and demanded that the film be removed. When Peña flatly declined, the government urged director Zhang Yimou to stay home rather than accompany his film Shanghai Triad to the festival, where it held the prestigious opening night spot. Zhang, dependent on government support to keep working, quietly agreed.

Overnight, The Gate of Heavenly Peace became a cause célèbre. While both filmmakers seem grateful for the incredible amount of publicity generated, they are philosophic about the Chinese protests. "Certain officials were doing this for other officials to see," Hinton speculates, noting that it was important within Government circles to appear belligerent and uncompromising towards the perceived enemy. Gordon points out, "It's not clear they were responding to our movie. They have not seen our movie." Rather, they were acting more on an assumption that they wouldn't like it, which, Gordon chuckles, "was a pretty good guess."

Despite the furor surrounding the film, The Gate of Heavenly Peace is a thoughtful, serious work that maintains a sense of credibility and historical tentativeness. The facts of Tiananmen Square in June 1989 are still not fully known, say Hinton and Gordon, and may not be for many years to come, possibly until China undergoes yet another major political mutation in the post-Deng era. Until then, one must turn to the disparate, contradictory voices of the Chinese participants. The overall effect is not a neat historical package, but it makes real the experience as lived by individual people. And like all of Hinton and Gordon's work, this sense of firsthand experience, of intimacy, is what it's all about - even for a subject as epic as this. As Hinton says, "History is made by numerous individuals wrestling with their personal decisions. And that's the most important thing for us."

Jerry White is on the program staff of Neighborhood Film/Video Project and the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema.

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