Circus School (Directors: Dingding Ke and Jing Guo, China, 2006): The filmmakers take us on a harrowing journey inside the world of Chinese acrobats, and the pictures are not pretty. Trainers push children as young as 8 to repeat their moves over and over, despite injuries and emotional breakdowns. This was a very interesting film because the filmmakers were young Chinese, and I’m sure a film made by a Western crew would have featured a lot of interviews with the children and their parents. Here, we just see the training and the occasional tirade by the principal or one of the trainers. The looks on the faces of the children tell us everything they are feeling, though they hardly speak in the film.
Acrobatics in China goes back hundreds of years, and it appears that the training regime has changed little in that time. Repetition, even when the children are exhausted, is the norm, and when things don’t go right, it’s common for the trainer to hurl insults and abuse at the students. In turn, the trainers are the subject of the same sort of attacks from the principal, as evidenced in one long and uncomfortable scene involving the teacher of the Triple Handstand group.
A few of the acrobats stand out. Eight-year-old Xu Yu is just adorable, even when the trapeze acrobats keep dropping her over and over. And Cai Ling, though 13, looks about 10, and struggles to keep his weight down even as he demonstrates his incredible talents. To see these kids so clearly suffering is heartbreaking, and yet, when we see their final performances, it’s almost enough to make us forget the rest. Almost, but not quite.
I knew before seeing the film that there would be quite an outcry from some in the Western audience. We’re not used to seeing such pressure put on kids. They were battered physically by the training and psychologically by their trainers. But the truth is that their families all pay to send the kids to circus school, and for some of them, it’s their only chance at a career.
Here in North America, we’re really not all that much kinder to our kids sometimes. I’ve seen films about competitive gymnastics where the treatment is just the same, and quite a few hockey-playing kids here in Canada face incredible amounts of pressure and abuse from their parents.
That being said, the young filmmakers did admit that they hope their film will help improve conditions for the acrobats. It’s a microcosm of a huge dilemma for China, who wants to hold onto its traditions while at the same time modernizing and opening up to the rest of the world. In that sense, this will be a thought-provoking film for all audiences, both Western and Chinese.
Here is the Q&A with directors Dingding Ke and Jing Guo from after the screening: