Circus School Dingding Ke and Jing Guo

Circus School Dingding Ke and Jing Guo
Toronto audiences were outraged with this rare peek inside a school for Chinese acrobats. At the Shanghai Circus school, students age six to 15 complete a seven-year programme before going professional as adults. The training is gruelling, physically punishing and the teachers demanding. Not all of these kids graduate and this film shows why.

Directors Jing Guo and Ke Dingding focus on Xu Lu, a ten-year-old girl trapeze artist who is tossed through the air even when injured, and Cai-Ling, a 13-year-old boy who struggles to keep his weight down despite his extreme training. The teachers push these kids hard, to the point of tears and physical pain, and the school director demands the teachers deliver perfection.

In the tradition of Frederick Wiseman, Circus School makes no comment and doesn’t need to. No narration is required as we see a teacher force a child’s leg into a 180-degree split over his head as he cries in pain. No words needed when Xu Lu tumbles during a practice and lands awkwardly in the safety net, weeping while unable to move her shoulder.

Chinese acrobatics date back centuries and the training presented here has not changed. That’s a shock for Western audiences weaned on the seamless beauty of these performers. After seeing this film, one audience member publicly vowed never to attend another show. But there is a point to remember: in China, parents push their kids to the physical and emotional brink in every field of study. Secondly, who’s to say this abuse doesn’t occur on our shores when we train pre-pubescent gymnasts?

I am not condoning the treatment of the children in this film; it is immoral and cruel. However, there are cultural norms to consider. Credit Circus School for raising these issues. (ITVS)