The Red Race

This is the best sports documentary to play SIFF since The Heart of the Game, one of the best I’ve seen in a decade. Granted unbelievable access by a Shanghai gymnastics academy (which likely thought the doc would boost its reputation), director Gan Chao follows several young children through their grueling workouts, schooling, and home life. We’ve read about the fishy birth certificates China used for its gymnasts at the last Olympics, but what we see here is an intensely competitive and unforgiving feeder system that molds medal winners at a very young age. Their parents are poor, peasants displaced from the countryside, and their families aren’t always intact. Making each selection at the academy, scoring well in meets, and then possibly reaching the national team is a matter of economic advancement not just for the tiny athletes, but for their kin, too. For this reason, we can understand why so few of them cry or complain about the incessant work and stern coaches. One of whom scolds a kid, “Is crying useful? Can you win first place by crying?” Yet these coaches aren’t monsters, and the academy isn’t exactly child abuse. Everyone knows the stakes involved, even the children (or they soon learn). There is a single, static shot in this movie, perhaps 60 seconds long, that contains more drama than anything I’ve seen on film this year: Two girls, aged about eight, in a contest to see who can hang longest from a bar. It’s excruciating to watch, because—as both girls know—the one who releases her grip first may drop farther than the floor. (SIFF tickets and info: 324-9996, BRIAN MILLER

Thu., June 11, 4:30 p.m., 2009

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