Film Review: Kings of the Sky

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The Wexner Center is billing Deborah Stratham’s Kings of the Sky as an “experimental documentary.” The experimental part seems to be whether or not a filmmaker can truly document a subject without relying on the normal bag of tricks, like authoritative voiceovers, talking head interviews with clearly identified subjects or a clear, linear narrative.

I’m not entirely sure whether Stratman’s experiment succeeded or not, or to what degree, but then, I’ve only seen her film once. (Although I did learn more about the subject matter of the film from press materials and articles about it than from actually viewing it).

Like any experiment, it will probably need to be subjected to more rigorous testing, and thus require repeated viewing.

You can see for yourself tonight at the Wexner Center, when Wexner Center Residency Award recipient Stratman herself will be on hand to introduce her film (and play another she’s currently working on as part of her residency).

She could hardly have asked for more colorful or more charged subject matter. Adil Hoxur, nicknamed “The King of the Sky,” is the national hero of the Uyghur people, the Chinese, Turkic-speaking Muslims who live in China’s western-most province and are subject to repression and oppression from the government in Beijing. Hoxur has achieved hero status through his proficiency in “Dawaz,” a form of tightrope-walking that is something of a mixture of performance, mythic ritual and sport.

The story goes that long ago demons and ghosts took over the country and built a huge castle no one could gain entrance to. A young hero tied a rope to the wall, tied the other end to a tall tree, and, using swords for balance, ran up the rope, leapt over the wall and vanquished the people’s foes.

That was 2,000 years ago, and Hoxur comes from a long line of such performers. Stratman couches this story in over an hour of leisurely footage of Hoxur and his troupe and the places they visit on their tour. He shares a few anecdotes, including an incredible tale of a rope-walk over a wooded valley through a cloud of mist that took him almost an hour (during which he believes Allah sent angels to help him) and a fall of over 50 meters that broke 17 of his bones, but much of the film consists of a cinéma vérité like documentation of rehearsals, naps, meals, and preparations, with startling footage of police beating crowds with tree switches thrown in.

Stratham’s passive lens captures some pretty amazing images, like one acrobat juggling another with her feet, or a sudden fall from a tightrope, but such scenes aren’t given any priority over the more mundane activities, leading to a strange world where an exotic circus starts to feel almost ordinary.

Somewhat dreamlike in structure, it’s as challenging a film as it is a fascinating one. It requires more patience and more work than a lot of less experimental documentaries, but it offers unique rewards in exchange, if not in information, then at least in emotion and imagery.

Kings of the Sky unspools tonight at 7 p.m. at the Wexner Center For the Arts’ Film/Video Theater. For more info, click to wexarts.org. It will be shown with short film The Magician’s House.

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