Gentle film delivers a tough message
How does a documentary filmmaker, who is committed to exposing human rights issues, gain access to members of a vanishing culture in one of the most repressive countries in the world? And, once inside, how does that filmmaker document the repression of that culture without endangering those he seeks to protect.
Those are the questions that nagged at Petr Lom, as he filmed "On a Tightrope" which will screen in the World Documentary Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Lom frets about how the release of his film will resonate in Xinjiang where the Uighur children featured in his film still hold onto vestiges of their disappearing Muslim culture despite the Communist government’s efforts to outlaw it. He hopes, though, that his understated portrayal of their stark living conditions and the their modest dreams of success will turn a small measure of the world’s attention to their plight.
"On a Tightrope" takes place in the far northwest region of China in an area bordered by Mongolia, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, India and Tibet. The dramatic, mountainous landscape is inhabited by a rich stew of cultures, many of which have suffered centuries of oppression. Like the Tibetans, the Uighurs once tried to govern themselves but their brief rebellion was quelled by the Chinese government. Unlike the Tibetans, though, the Uighurs’ have received little foreign attention.
Lom hopes his film will change that.
His previous film, "Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan" focused worldwide attention on the practice abducting women to be wives in Kyrgyzstan. While in some cases the abduction is voluntary, Lom observed tragic examples of young women being forcefully taken from their families to be wed to men they did not want to marry. The documentary won several awards and aired on the Public Broadcasting network program "Frontline." It also cemented Lom’s commitment to making documentaries about human rights.
When Lom settled on the Uighurs for his next film, he says, fellow academics and filmmakers told him it would be impossible to film in China. But Lom was determined. "I realized a film in Xinjiang could only be made with official permission, after a PBS crew tried to make a film surreptitiously in Xinjiang the year before with tragic consequences — the filmmakers were deported; their subject has "disappeared."
Permission was granted, but it meant that he had a government "minder" with him at all times. Nevertheless, over time, Lom seems to have gained his subject’s trust and if not approval, then tacit cooperation from his government observer.
Though the film opens with a confrontation between Lom and an angry official who tries to shoo Lom and his camera away, the rest of the film focuses on four Uighur orphans who are attempting to master the ancient Uighur art of tightrope walking.
The children practice in a dusty courtyard under the auspices of a stern coach who seems more interested in potentially making a profit off the young performers than about the children themselves. One by one the children drop out of school to follow in the footsteps of the only successful Uighur role model they have, Adhili Hoshur, a national acrobatic star who walked a tightrope across China’s equivalent of the Snake River Gorge, and then later on a cable strung between two mountain peaks in China.
The children’s rocky relationship with the first coach and their affection for a second, kindly, old street performer who adopts their little troupe, shapes the film’s story line but the most mesmerizing parts of the film are when the children talk about being orphaned, their memories of having parents and their innocent, confused attempts to comply with the harsh dictates of their Communist-run school.
Over the course of five four-month-long trips, Lom mostly worked alone, doing all of the film and audio work himself. Other than an interpreter and the constant presence of his "minder, Lom says, ""I am a one-man show. I like to make films where I can get close to people."
In addition to Lom’s stunning cinematic portraits of the children and the landscape, the soundtrack of "On a Tightrope" offers haunting melodies in which the children sing about their losses and dreams of having parents.
While editing the film, Lom said he was intensely cognizant of the precarious politics in the region and was careful to omit scenes that might put his subjects in jeopardy. But, he says, he hopes he left enough intact to motivate audiences to reach out to the Uighurs, especially the children.
On a Tightrope screens at Sundance:
Sunday , Jan 21 at 1 p.m. at Holiday Village Cinema IV in Park City
Monday , Jan 22 at 7:30 p.m. at Broadway Centre Cinemas VI, in SLC
Wednesday , Jan 24 at 11:59 p.m. Holiday Village Cinema III in Park City
Thursday, Jan. 25 at 12:15 p.m. Holiday Village Cinema III in Park City
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