One Man's Tiananmen

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WENDY KANFirst films can be difficult to watch. Debut directors often take on overly ambitious projects with grandiose, unwieldy themes. At first glance, Wang Shuibo's documentary Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square appears to be just that, a film that squeezes China's tumultuous modern history into a mere half hour. But it is also a personal tale of Wang's disillusionment with communism, handled with such sensitivity and visual skill that it will compete against two other short-subject documentaries for an Academy Award on March 21.Wang toiled four years on the film--writing, illustrating and digging up family photos--in an effort to explain the historical significance of Beijing's Tiananmen Square. That political sympathies may have played a part in the film's Oscar nomination would not be surprising: China's democracy movement, crushed at Tiananmen in 1989, won the hearts and minds of many Americans. And what better way for the Academy to mark the 10th anniversary of the massacre than to recognize those who condemn it?

Wang, like many youths who grew up under Mao and became radical Red Guards, later concluded that socialist China--with its widespread poverty--was far from the utopia authorities had made it out to be. Mercifully, the documentary rises above politics. Wang's storytelling is engaging and sensitive. He recalls when, as a young boy, he saved his father, who had been accused of spying, from an attempted suicide. Of the 1989 shootings, which he did not witness but was close enough to hear, he says in the film, That was the darkest day of my life. Four months after the incident, he and his wife left for Canada, settling in Montreal.

What makes Sunrise stand out is Wang's skilled use of his own artwork. A 38-year-old artist and lecturer, Wang deftly serves up a range of black-and-white family photographs, animation and paintings. Originally he had planned to use archival film stock, but he changed course when the National Film Board of Canada advised him to create a more personal work.

The result makes for compelling viewing. His animation is playful (Mao strikes up Uncle Sam's famous I Want You pose) and disturbing (a woman is raped by a Japanese soldier during the Sino-Japanese war). He also effectively recasts moving scenes that the world has witnessed or imagined: a soldier opening fire on unseen Tiananmen protesters; the Goddess of Democracy statue falling to the ground.

Distance and time have tempered his own emotions. Look at the size of the population and the illiteracy rate, says Wang, who now splits his time between Canada and his native country. China is not ready for democracy. Many may disagree, but with the historical perspective provided by Sunrise, the subject is again open for debate.