I received an email this afternoon from a friend who told me that I needed to find a copy of a documentary entitled “The Red Race,” which had aired Monday night on Shanghai’s venerable Documentary Channel. Directed by Gan Chao, a Shanghainese documentary filmmaker, the film offers stark and disturbing footage of a Shanghai-area gymnastics training center. I haven’t been able to find a complete copy of the film online, but there’s a ten minute excerpt available on YouTube complete with a Spanish voiceover. Don’t worry about the language issues, though: the footage itself tells enough of a story.
The film appears to have been released during the Olympics, which is why I must’ve missed it (along with all of the other China-oriented material unleashed and lost during that period). In any case, it seems to have been screened at a number of Western film festivals in the late summer and early fall of 2008. Those few who’ve written about it seem to fixate on the same sequence: two very young girls, in obvious pain, hanging from a parallel bar. The passage is equally engaging and disturbing, and you’ll find it in the aforementioned YouTube clip.
What I find particularly curious about the film (or, at least, the ten minutes that I screened on YouTube) is just how much it conforms to the worst Western stereotypes and fears of Chinese athletic training and – in contrast – how differently it was perceived in a Shanghai Daily article promoting it earlier this week. Whereas this English-language blog refers to the footage as displaying all the characteristics of “child abuse,” the Shanghai Daily quotes the director:
“When I took a gym class in 2007, I noticed these child gymnasts around me,” recalls Gan, 31. “I was touched by their optimism, courage and perseverance in spite of tears and injuries. I immediately decided to make a film chronicling their childhood.”
To my sensibilities, the former assessment seems far more apt. I found the footage to be deeply disturbing, and I find it hard to believe that Shanghainese sensibilities wouldn’t be similarly offended. In any case, decide for yourself, here.
In fairness, brutal exploitation of young athletes is an age-old phenomenon that takes on the national characteristics of wherever it occurs. For a very well-written (though not nearly as brutal) American example, see Michael Sokolove’s outrageously good “Allonzo Trier Is in the Game,” from the March 19 issue of the NYT Sunday Magazine. Just to be clear: I’m not drawing moral equivalents. But the NYT piece is, in its own way, a more affluent (by comparison) expression of the same phenomenon documented in “The Red Race.”