Walking 60 feet above the Chinese desert: Deborah Stratman on her amazing “Kings of the Sky” doc

Deborah Stratman didn’t speak the language or know anyone in the Western Chinese Taklamakan desert when she went there alone in 2001 to shoot her documentary “Kings of the Sky.”

Without a translator, the UIC film teacher spent four months on tour with a circus troupe led by Adil Hoxur, the leading practitioner of Dawaz, the traditional tightrope-walking style of the Uyghur Muslim ethnic minority.

In “Kings of the Sky” Stratman paints an impressionistic portrait of Hoxur and his art, symbols of cultural and nationalist pride for the oppressed Uyghur. It premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival and has played festivals, museums, alternative and educational venues around the world.

ReelChicago talked with Stratman in advance of “Kings'” local festival debut Aug. 21 at the Chicago Underground Film Festival.

REELCHICAGO: What attracted you to Dawaz as a subject for “Kings of the Sky?”
DEBORAH STRATMAN: Most of my films begin with an interest in a region. I was interested in Xinxiang as the most inland place in the world. I found out about a grant from the Durfee Foundation (which doesn’t exist anymore) that funded people to go to China and do projects that provoke cultural exchange. It was called something like ?the Chinese adventure capital grant.’ Then I started researching more seriously.

RC: What made you decide to make a film about tightrope walking?
Stratman: As I learned more about the Uyghurs and their political situation, and that tightrope walking was their national sport, I found that to be a beautiful metaphor for their need to cling to their cultural identity, and their sense of feeling torn by the influx of Han Chinese [China’s dominant majority ethnic group] in the area. I didn’t have any contacts there and I don’t speak Uyghur. I thought if nothing else, I could make an interesting film about looking for tightrope walkers.

RC: How did you find the Dawaz troupe that you profiled?
Stratman: Within a week of having landed in Urumqi, the capital of Xinxiang, I met a journalist, Iliyar Ablimit, who introduced me to the manager of Adil’s troupe. I filmed them practicing, and Ilyar translated an interview with Adil.

That day, they asked me to go on tour. I agreed to go, without knowing how long it would be, and without any translator. A month and a half into the tour, I had learned enough of the Uyghur language that I was able to ask ?how long is the tour?’ And they said ?two and a half months longer.’