China’s Uyghur population has been in the news a lot in Canada. Lately this has been because Huseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen originally from China’s Xinjiang region, was imprisoned in China, and the Chinese jibbing at Canadian consular access has caused considerable diplomatic tension between the two countries. Thus, the timing of a new Canadian documentary about the Uyghur experience seemed to me quite fortuitous. But “On a Tightrope” (which is actually a Canadian-Norwegian co-production) is not simply a current-events exposé meant to explain the situation of China’s largest Muslim group (although the film does some of that), nor is it a work of confrontational activism (although the opening sequence features a suit-wearing, cell-phone-using, fancy-car-driving Chinese official saying that they are forbidden to translate this conversation). We never even hear about the East Turkestan Republic, a short-lived independent Uyghur state that existed from 1933-4 (a forgotten part of history that I personally find quite fascinating).
But it hardly matters. On A Tightrope is a lyrical and at times surprisingly critical portrait of life among a marginalised people, and it’s admirable for the way that it avoids romanticism.
The film centres on a group of orphans, several of whom are trying to become tightrope walkers in the same way that kids in American ghettos might peruse basketball. Mostly via interviews Lom shows us that this is far from being a tale of kids escaping from poverty by pursuing a passion. Some of the kids are less than excited about the pastime itself, and while we see plenty of determined practice, very little of this imagery radiates passion or excitement. Furthermore, the man training these youngsters comes across through direct interviews and via second-hand recollection as something pretty far from a humanitarian.
Despite the general sadness of the predicament, though, there is a lyrical sense to the imagery. Lom’s camera is patient, and thus we do get to see these kids in a way that brings us into their world gently. This is a modest work, and a topical one too, but it’s not limited by either of these aspects. On A Tightrope shows us, through an attention both to political contradiction and visual grace, just how hard it is to live in a marginal community in the early 21st century.