Written, directed, photographed and produced by Aaron Schock, Circo exudes the kind of tenderness and authenticity that can only be a labor of love. Perhaps such attitude is required for a documentary filmmaker to successfully tell the stories of these subjects, a family of traveling circus performers in rural Mexico whose lives revolve around the act every minute of their day. Led by ringmaster Tino Ponce, Gran Mexico Circo, though it is not as grand as its name suggests, is a pride filled family business, which has been passed from one generation to the next in Mexico since the late 19th century. Tino’s children—all four of them still school age—practice and perform everyday, mastering acts of contortion and the tightrope, which their aunts and uncles had done before them. But times have changed. Financial problems and family tension is threatening the Ponce family tradition.
Originally, Schock had gone to Mexico to make a documentary about corn farmers. By chance, he went to the circus one night and was immediately enchanted by the magic and intimacy of Gran Mexico Circo. After getting acquainted with the Ponce family over the next few days, Schock had to leave but vowed to come back to make a documentary about them. Eventually, he returned with his camera, shooting and recording the sound as a one-man crew for the next twenty-two months. His close relationship with the members of the circus is certainly an unsung asset to the rich portrayals that gives the audience a look into their personal lives. It is not unusual that what happens behind the scenes is crucial to the making of a documentary. Like the Maysles Brothers (Salesmen, Grey Gardens) and Steve James (and other makers of Hoop Dreams), documentary filmmakers discover a lot more than they initially set out to capture after their rapport with their subjects grow over the course of production. Despite coming in as an outsider, Schock displays genuine interest in his subjects as human beings and not as romanticized (or worse, exoticized) characters to serve the film’s thesis. He lets the experiences of the Ponce family guide the film’s narrative without imposing any preconceived agenda, which is something sadly against the grain of contemporary American documentaries. A documentary on struggling students does not interest me if the filmmaker has planned to make an education system exposé before the first image is shot. Self-serving filmmakers who tailor the representation of the subjects for their ideologically driven narratives are not only unauthentic, but also lack the excitement and complexion that separates cinema from a 20/20 segment.
Rapport aside, Schock has shown no obligation to spin the narrative into a puff piece. Circo celebrates the wonders of a rich tradition without shying away from the baggage that comes along with it. “The circus is beautiful and harsh,” says Tino. Vibrant colors of aerial performances and small towns in Mexico come hand in hand with the unflinching reality of the children’s lack of education and a “normal” childhood. However, it never occurred to me that Schock was passing judgment on his subjects. It is admirable for a documentary to trust its participants in telling their stories, and to trust its viewers in listening to their stories.
Circo has all the drama and gorgeous footage for a brilliant documentary, but it suffers from a problem similar to that of Page One: Inside The New York Times. The storytelling of both films comes across as unfocused and scattered, but more so in Page One than in Circo. In the latter’s case, its underlying theme—when the old-fashioned way is at odds with the new—is resolute, but the seemingly unlimited supply of supporting cast distracts, instead of adding on to the central storyline, which is the tension between Tino, who is always doing what’s best for the circus, and his wife Yvonne, who is unhappy with the price her children have to pay for the business to survive. Even though the subplots concerning Tino’s siblings and relatives are all relevant to this diminishing culture, they take away the screen time from the main characters, who are more than adequate in carrying the film.
Circo is playing at the MFAH on 8/26 (7:00pm), 8/27 (7:00pm) and 8/28 (6:00pm).