Saturday 28 April 2007

Hot Docs 04/27/07 - Circus School and Intelligence

Circus School

The film "Circus School" - about young Chinese children practicing their different acrobatic routines in preparation for a competition - is structured pretty much exactly how you would expect. Start several months out from a target date, introduce individual children and follow them through the ups and downs of their training. What you don't expect is the emotional involvement you end up having with these kids.

Granted, a good deal of your attachment to the kids is because they are so young. Little Xu Lu is a 9 year old trapeze flyer and 13 year old Cai-Ling performs a floor exercise routine that defies all expectations of what the human body can do. But it's the struggle they endure to become accomplished that is so draining to watch.

Both of these kids show exceptionally strong will in working through pain and long sessions, but it's not because they are necessarily so driven. The film, without using any narration, paints a picture of parents and teachers who feel the children must at all costs succeed at what has been determined to be their vocation. After the film, several attendees wondered if this was any different than North American culture in comparison to kids being driven to excel at sports or school. I can't say, but it provides a frightening example of pushing children to their limits.

Part 1 of the film is dedicated to the run up to a presentation of the trapeze routine and the stress and strain put on Xu Lu. There are other children and routines touched on, but the focus is on Xu Lu's growth. Essentially treated like a rag doll as she is thrown from one trapeze to another, she suffers one very painful fall and a myriad of dressing downs from the coaches. In the end she succeeds beautifully, but should a nine year old girl really be put through this?

In part 2, Cai-Ling has his own struggles with weight gain and what should really be soul-crushing verbal attacks by his own coach. Even while you are admiring phenomenal abilities in balance and flexibility, the coaches continue to criticize the boy because it isn't perfect. Previous scenes showing the abuse the teachers themselves get from the principal dovetail nicely with these scenes and show a continuum of insane expectations. The film actually ends by showing the entire final performance by Cai-Ling and it's stunning. Just incredible.

I just hope someone gave these kids a hug at some point.


How do you tackle a subject like intelligence in a single 90 minute film? Well, first of all, you don't try to actually answer any specific questions. Attack it from several angles, raise doubts about convention and try to keep things within a vague framework. This was a similar tactic by director Kevin McMahon in another of his films screened at this year's fest ("McLuhan's Wake"), but in this case it succeeds.

Actually, he does try to answer, or at least dismiss one specific question --> Can intelligence be measured? Rather quickly in the early going, I.Q. tests are discussed and set aside as really being nothing more than an indicator of how good someone is at doing an I.Q. test. Having always agreed with this assessment of these intelligence standards, the film gained my good graces.

Less awkward than the framing device used in "McLuhan's Wake", here the story of The Emperor's New Clothes is used throughout the film. This is used to good effect when highlighting how people try to compare intelligence and how and why it is valued to the extent that it is.

As part of the Focus On series, this was one of McMahon's earier films (almost a decade old) and that timeframe is important to understand another major theme of the film. Artificial intelligence (or at least the possibility of it) is discussed extensively and concerns are raised about the potential changes to society. It seems a bit paranoid at times, but given the topic and the time period it's not too far afield.

The film must have resonated somewhat with the audience. Normally the Q&A's after the films are filled with interesting, but fairly expected questions. At this screening, at least 4 separate people had overly long, verbose statements to make regarding the film itself as well as their philisophical approach to the subject at hand. Like the characters in The Emperor's New Clothes, it was almost like they were all trying to show off their own intelligence - for fear that the rest of us might not see it.

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