An experimental documentary about resistance, balance and fame, Kings of the Sky follows tightrope artist Adil Hoxur as he and his troupe tour China’s Taklamakan desert amongst the Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim people seeking religious and political autonomy. The film gracefully hovers between travelogue, ethnographic visual poetry, and an advocacy video for preserving a traditional art form.
This project was shot over four months with Adil and his troupe as we toured Chinese Turkestan, performing nightly in tiny oasis villages. Adil descends from a long line of Dawaz (tightrope) performers, and is now teaching his daughters the craft. Since he first broke the Guinness World Record in 1997, Adil’s fame has eclipsed anything achieved by his forbears. He has become an inadvertent national icon for his people’s struggle, bearing uncanny resemblance to the Dawaz hero of an old Uyghur myth who once freed his countrymen from an oppressive reign of invading ghosts, an apt metaphor for the ongoing tension between the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese.
Despite years of government repression, nationalist sentiment amongst ethnic Uyghurs quietly boils under the surface. Recent separatist demonstrations in the 1990s resulted in the government’s “Strike Hard” policy to incarcerate, and in some cases execute, outspoken Uyghur nationalists – a policy being exacted in increasingly harsh ways since September 11th. Throughout Xinjiang there is a heavy police and military presence. News is controlled, travel and mosque attendance are restricted and public meetings are forbidden. One can be jailed for years on mere suspicion of subversion. In this environment, resistance tends to happen in smaller ways.
By portraying the intimate details of everyday life amidst the Dawaz troupe, Kings of the Sky reveals to those unfamiliar with Uyghur culture the small truths which together form a sense of national and political identity. Kings of the Sky is a film about seeking balance: balance between minority separatist yearnings and Han Chinese rule... balance between ancient cultural traditions and modern technologies… balance between an American filmmaker and a remote Muslim community... and balance between our flightless bodies and the eternal laws of gravity.
Director, Producer, Camera, Edit, Sound Design: Deborah Stratman
Sound Recording: Deborah Stratman, Fausto Caceres, Carl Lee
Sound Mix: Jacob Ross
Online Edit: Mike Olenick
Adil Hoxur and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Dawaz Troupe
Shot on Location in East Turkestan
"Chicagoan Deborah Stratman, who specializes in experimental documentaries, spent four months with tightrope walker Adil Hoxur – cited in the Guinness Book of World Records and the latest descendant of a family of tightrope performers over many centuries – as he and his troupe toured Chinese Turkestan and performed nightly in small villages. Among his biggest fans are fellow Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim people seeking religious and political autonomy. Stratman emphasizes the everyday over the exotic, a consistently fresh and personal way of relating to the material; she trusts viewers to make many of the right connections but never comes across as esoteric. Her sense of rhythm in this digital video, particularly evident in the way she edits and lingers over certain kinds of movement, is especially impressive." - Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader, 2005
"The ethnic/political tensions between Turkistani Uyghurs and Han Chinese are delicately observed by experimental filmmaker Deborah Stratman in Kings of the Sky, which follows famed Uyghur tightrope artist Adil Hoxur as his troupe tour the China-controlled desert regions of Central Asia. Capturing the intricacies of Hoxur's art as well as the oppressive circumstances under which it is performed, [this] documentary should be welcomed by fests and by the museums and galleries that regularly showcase Stratman's work."
"Though less conceptual than Stratman's superb 2002 Sundance short, In Order Not to Be Here,Kings [represents] an admirable attempt to find a new documentary language. A tourist in China herself, the American Stratman avoids voiceover narration or other devices that might have imposed false authority on [the picture], instead presenting her collected images and interviews in a seemingly random, collage-like fashion that evokes the experience of a stranger visiting a strange land. Bodies in extravagantly ornamented costumes walk the highwire, while crowds of demonstrators are quelled by police. And somehow we come to understand that, for Hoxur and his colleagues, their performances are at once personal expression and nonviolent resistance." - Scott Foundas, pdf
Originally published: Variety, 2004
"Deborah Stratman documented near west side drag racers in The BLVD (1999) and fluorescent suburban nightscapes in In Order Not To Be Here (2002), but now this Chicago filmmaker goes on the road in East Turkestan with the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Dawaz Troupe in an allusively anthropological look at folk heroes and pop stars performing with uncertain political footing.
This lively ensemble of three dozen acrobats, jugglers, clowns, musicians and trapeze artists just lost seven members on tour who defected in Toronto, explains Stratman in the end credits. Scenes of
tightrope hero Adil Hoxur posing with fans for snapshots needs no explanation, but later scenes of Chinese forces viciously swinging tree branches at throngs of locals does. For context, Stratman adds a few unidentified voiceovers that state that Chinese authorities burn books in Uyghur language, champion a Wal-Mart style shopping complex, and promise to quell ethnic Muslim insurgents who might interfere with the region’s oil reserves.
Stratman prefers behind-the-scenes details over geopolitics, as she frames lyrical close-ups of Uyghurs winching the tightrope, dabbing mascara, and stretching legs before performances. She gazes at the hands of women napping on a vast crimson rug, then ends the reverie by finding a spot to lay down herself. After shooting a girl take a bad fall, Stratman edits a montage of performers proudly showing off their scars. And she shows one of her own.
Kings of the Sky hovers between a traveler’s diary, a visual poem of ethnographic imagery, and an advocacy video for preserving a traditional art form. It’s as if Stratman ran off, joined the circus and learned a balancing act of her own." - Bill Stamets, Chicago Sun Times
"Kings of the Sky offers – beautifully – another kind of filmmaking altogether. A purely visual exposition, without narration or textual notation, the film follows Adil Hoxur, a famous tightrope artist, as he and his troupe travel among the Uyghurs, an indigenous Turkic-speaking Muslim people who live in the Chinese region of Xinjiang. Performing nightly in the oasis villages of the Taklamakan Desert, Hoxur becomes an inadvertent icon for his people’s struggle for religious autonomy and political independence.
Following separatist demonstrations in the nineties, the Chinese government’s "Strike Hard" policy against Uyghur nationalists has escalated even more harshly in recent years. A heavy police and military presence provides a threatening backdrop for the quietly subversive behavior of the Uyghur resistors, who defy their oppressors in wearing Islamic dress or refusing to set their clocks to Beijing time. Hoxur’s gravity-defying art form provides a brilliant metaphor for life on the political brink.
Kings of the Sky is a marvelous work by Deborah Stratman, an accomplished filmmaker and multimedia artist." - Kay Armatage, Toronto International Film Festival