Gulu Village is a very remote place. High up in the mountains of Sichuan, China, it is both beautiful and elusive, though not quite as cut off from the world as it once was. Much of the village used to be accessible only by ladders, tenuously affixed to the cliffs. A 2004 mule path has made them obsolete, but the trip is still hardly a perfectly safe one. The danger of transportation in Gulu is the subject of most media coverage of its existence, all of which arrived after the 2008 earthquake. Of particular notice for journalists has been the lone elementary school and the perilous commute taken by its students.
Director Xu Hongjie, however, avoids most of this sensationalist tone in his film about Gulu’s school, On the Rim of the Sky. She embraces the setting, of course, setting up plenty of breathtaking shots of the cliffs and even visiting one of the now-obsolete “Heaven Ladders,” still resting precariously against the rock. Yet she focuses on the quotidian experience of the school itself rather than the hard road there. And more importantly, he remains in Gulu long enough to capture the full breadth of what might be the biggest political conflict in the village’s entire history.
For 26 years this lone elementary school had a just one teacher. Shen Qijun has devoted his life to the school. Yet because he only has a middle school education, he is technically only a substitute. Before the 2008 disaster and the sudden influx of media attention, no one in China’s education bureaucracy made it a priority to replace him. Yet now, with the arrival of aid workers from big cities, everything has changed. The principal volunteer is Bao Tangtao, a university graduate who has made it his personal mission to reform the entire school.
The inevitable conflict between Shen and Bao, however, arrives slowly. The first act of Xu’s film proceeds more horizontally, using an observational technique to capture both the administration of the school and the lives of its students. Moving from the classroom to the playground and frequently out into the forest, the first act has the decentralized structure of a Frederick Wiseman film, albeit much smaller in scope. A better example might be Amanda Wilder’s Approaching the Elephant, though Xu never quite lingers as long in any single scene.
Xu knows to illustrate his characters just as thoroughly as she lays out the tensions between them. Shen becomes increasingly frustrated as Bao and the other volunteers ask him to drop most of his classes, on the grounds that he isn’t educated enough to teach higher grades. Xu highlights the changes in Shen’s body language, frustrations driving him to the brink of crumpled violence. The whole town seems to have lost respect for him and he finds himself accused of embezzling school funds to build his own house. Even his role as a local shaman no longer helps him maintain his standing.
Bao, meanwhile, stiffens as he becomes more ambitious. Early in the film, before things escalate, Xu features the young man’s bookshelf. Che Guevara is his idol, and revolutionary texts in general feature notably. His face lights up as he gets closer to making changes at the school that will inevitably anger the authorities, particularly when it comes to financial matters. In another context, he might be a prime believer for the nonsense tech jargon of “disruption.”
Or perhaps a better comparison for Bao would be Teach for America, and the current education crisis in the United States. Inexperienced, more privileged youth arrived in a forgotten corner of the country to try “fixing” something long ignored by a larger institution. Which is, of course, just one perspective. Xu shows both Bao and Shen as flawed men, who want to help children and refuse to help each other. Their conflict illuminates the divide between rural and urban, young and old, college educated and otherwise. On the Rim of the Sky is a remarkably perceptive film about China, but it joins recent documentaries The Chinese Mayor and Father and Sons in presenting a 21st century story with remarkably universal implications.