Monday, March 09, 2009

NYICFF: Circus School

Gold Medalist He Kexin became the face of the 2008 Olympics when contradictory reports regarding her age raised doubts whether she was old enough to compete. Of course, the Olympic committee unquestioningly accepted China’s documentation at face value. Would the Chinese actually train girls so young for international competition? The answer is clearly yes, at least in the case of their acrobatic schools, like the one featured in Guo Jing and Ke Dingding’s documentary Circus School (trailer here), which screened at this year’s New York International Children’s Film Festival.

At least the Shanghai Circus School is not coy about their students’ ages. While most of the girls Guo and Ke follow are between nine and twelve, the youngest enrolled there are six. Most of those students are in Circus School because they have washed out of more prestigious training programs. At Shanghai, the pressure will only get worse for nine year-old trapeze student Xu Lu, who emerges as the tiny rooting interest of the documentary.

Cheng, the principal, selects the trapeze and triple handstand teams as the school’s best hopes in an upcoming acrobatic tournament, despite Xu Lu’s coach deriding her as a “disaster.” However, it is the triple hand-standers who meltdown in training, resulting in an old school Maoist public dressing-down for their disgraced coaching team. Nobody at the Shanghai Circus School seems to be having fun, especially including the faculty.

Against expectations, Xu and the trapeze team steadily improve, but it is a hard process to watch, as her small frame is thrown around and repeatedly dropped (into safety nets, but not without wear and tear). In a particularly painful episode, she is slammed against an iron handrail during the morning practice for the tournament pre-selection. “Such a little girl” one bystander remarks as she is carried out of the auditorium, crying in obvious pain. Yet that evening, she dutifully performs an understandably rocky routine.

At times, Circus School is frankly difficult to watch. The forced stretching the directors capture more closely resembles torture than healthy exercises. The sight of very young children crying is quite common in the documentary. One wonders if it might be too intense for younger viewers, even though they would readily identify with the young subjects.

Guo and Ke eschew narration and talking head interviews, simply filming events as they unfold, fly-on-the-wall style, and presenting the results to the audience unfiltered. Unless the filmmakers were consciously and deliberately biased in the editing process, the principal and faculty can only blame themselves for coming across as cruel taskmasters on-screen. While Circus School is destined for life on PBS, the longer festival cut really should be seen. While frequently wince-inducing, it opens an unforgettable window into the lives of its diminutive subjects.