Hot Docs: Dragon Girls – Inigo Westmeier

hotdocsEven a late start and sound issues couldn’t ruin this doc that screened last night at the Royal.

The entire audience was swept up in the opening shot, which features a massive parade ground and a huge rush of hundreds, no thousands (35,000 – to be a little more exact) kung fu students running in organized lines towards the camera and then a dizzying exercise display, all in synch.

It’s a great way to open a film, and it’s absolutely stunning to see on the big screen.

Dragon Girls directed by Inigo Westmeier follows members of the girls classes in this giant Kung Fu school, where training takes place 7 days a week, and there is no such thing as spare time.

The film follows a number of girls but three stand out, little 9-year-old Xin, precocious and adorable, she’s a member of the elite team, and training constantly with her sword, hoping to come in first at the competition so her father will come visit her.

Chen Xi a 15-year-old, who gives her all, but it still may not be enough.

And Huang a 16-year-old who escaped the school, only to be returned to it.

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It’s a bittersweet watch. The training sequences are incredible, not just for what the exercise actually entails, but seeing so many people doing the same thing at once. It’s sad because we begin to realize that these girls are not only being denied a childhood, they are being denied their family. They may only see their parents once or twice a year. Both Chen and Xin realize that they are more at home in the school with their trainers than they are at home, and that realization when it happens on camera, is heartbreaking.

All the students are housed in giant dormitories, that could be mistaken for worn down prisons. They are allowed showers twice a week and no heating for winter. They are up at 5:30 every morning, exercise and train all day (with occasional academic classics if they elect to take them), they aren’t allowed to have boyfriends, and they can be beaten by trainers or fellow students if they aren’t performing to expected standards.

It’s a brutal world these girls live in, contrasted by intercutting to the local Shao Lin temple and the training and zen like environment the monks exist in there.

It is a world completely different to ours, and instead of judging it, the film remains objective  allowing the camera and the viewer to take what they want from it, seeing the beauty and the heartbreak in equal measure.

Truly enjoyable!

Dragon Girls screens again Monday April 29 at 10:20pm at the ROM, and Sunday May 5 at 11am at the Bloor Cinema.

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