[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance ’07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]
China’s largest Muslim minority, the Uighur, is the focus of Petr Lom‘s second documentary, “On a Tightrope.” Living in a vast northern region, the descendants of this thousand-year-old culture are forbidden to practice their religion. Information and outside contact are strictly state-controlled. By following four orphaned children through tightrope walking school (a Uighur tradition), Lom has caught an amazing and rare document of a fading culture. Lom’s first film, “The Kidnapped Bride,” was broadcast on Frontline/World in 2004. “On a Tightrope” is part of Sundance’s World Documentary Competition.
Please introduce yourself…
I am 38 years old. I was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and grew up in a small town north of Toronto in Canada (Barrie, Ontario). I was an academic for seven years. I have a Ph.D. in political philosophy from Harvard, and this is what I used to teach.
Three years ago, I decided to make a film. I had no training in the craft. But I realized that my heart was not completely satisfied with my career in the university, and so I decided to give it a try. I bought a camera a week before I started making my first film. I was lucky, because I had found a good story: bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan. And I had a fellowship from the Soros Foundation that paid my salary that year while I made the film (the film itself I produced with my credit card. The budget was zero). The film was successful (broadcast in more than 20 countries, and screened at over 60 festivals around the world), and so I quit the university to dedicate myself to filmmaking full time.
Career transition, and leaving the safety net of my life in the university for a free-lance profession was a very difficult choice – and initially very stressful (despite what I read about career change being normal and easy and to be expected these days). But it has been the best thing I have ever done in my life, because now I am living consistenly with my heart, by following my dreams. To anyone reading this article, who might be in a similar situation, I say: please follow your heart too.
Please describe your film.
This is my second film. It is about the Uighurs – the eight million strong Muslim minority in far western China, in Xinjiang province. The story is about four Uighur children living in an orphanage, who are learning the ancient Uighur art of tightrope walking.
What was your approach to making the film?
I work alone, doing my own camera work and sound, working with just a translator, trying to get close to my subjects, to make a very intimate film. My goal in the project was simply to succeed to make a film in Xinjiang. For most people told me this would be impossible.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the movie?
Xinjiang is as “sensitive” area for the Chinese as Tibet. Xinjiang used to be independent until Chinese unification in 1949. The Chinese are very concerned about separatism in Xinjiang. And so they control and persecute the Uighurs: more than 10,000 Uighurs are political prisoners today. There are said to be an equal number of secret police in Xinjiang. And so this is a hard place to make a film. To give you one recent example: PBS tried to make a film in Xinjiang two years ago: their correspondent was deported, and their interviewee has “disappeared.”
To be successful, I realized I’d have to make a film with official Chinese state approval, and that the best way to get this permission would be to pick a cultural subject that the authorities would not find threatening, and which they might approve. And so I picked tightrope walking, which is an old Uighur tradition (the world record holder happens to be an Uighur.) Through this subject, I was able to get permission to follow my subjects, four orphan children, into the Chinese state schools, where I show you how the state tries to brainwash the Uighurs into becoming Communists, and how it forbids them to practice their Muslim religion. (To forbid anyone from practicing their religion, especially children, is of course, against international law, and is a policy that the Chinese deny exists).
But this has been a difficult film to make – not just to get the access, and not just working in a closed society (it is no fun when the police come and want to look at all your tapes in your hotel room), but also to make sure that no one in the film gets hurt. Unfortunately, much of the most interesting material in the film (e.g. interviews with those whose relatives are political prisoners) simply had to be cut from the final version, because of possible recrimination by the Chinese state.
How did the financing for the film come together?
This was a co-production with a producer from Norway, who has been very successful at fundraising. We also pitched the project at the IDFA financing forum in Amsterdam last year. And finally, we were fortunate enough to be supported by a grant from the Sundance Institute.
Tell us about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance.
I was finishing the online of the film at a studio whose server had just crashed, and who had just informed me that they had not backed up any of my media (basically your worst nightmare). And so this brought me out of this nightmare, into a dream come true.
What is your definition of “independent” film?
A film that does not compromise.
What are some of your favorite films, and why?
Many by Ozu – “Tokyo Story“; “Late Spring”; Bresson – “Au Hasard Balthasar“; Wong Kar Wai – “In the Mood for Love“; in documentary: “Three Rooms of Melancholia.” Though they are not from 2006, the best films I have seen this year are by the Belgian Dardenne Brothers (“The Son” and “The Promise“). Why? They are beautiful.
What are your New Years resolutions?
To keep dreaming awake – to keep making films.
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