Aaron Schock’s award-winning documentary “Circo” is a simple thing of beauty. Tyro director Schock’s mission ” to reverse the direction of the documentary lens that has typically looked at Mexico only from the border up and singularly through the subject of immigration.” succeeded wildly. He traveled the back roads of Mexico, researching a film about corn farmers, but a visit to a small traveling circus in the state of Nayarit changed his plans. Schock gracefully integrates himself into the daily workings of this tiny isolated clan.
The Ponce’s drive into town and raise their blue Big Top, signaling to the local kids that The Circus Is In Town! The Ponce kids and grandkids, all performers, risk lives and limbs walking the high wire, spinning in the air and clowning.
In following the Ponce family’s “Gran Circo Mexico”, established in the 19th century, Shock found a moving, universal tale of family allegiance and betrayal.
The Ponce family have lived and performed together on the back roads of Mexico for generations. Workaholic Ringmaster Tino has ambitious plans to save the circus. He galvanizes his parents, brother and kids. His wife Ivonne resents her in-laws, feels exploited and wants to give her working kids a real childhood. Between these unmovable forces hang the tale, a soap opera and road-movie in one.
Illiterate Tino is trapped between his family’s fabled lost past and his new family, trying to resuscitate a 100-year-old family business. To which family does he owe allegiance? “The circus forever. Through the good and the bad. Always the circus.”
Tino’s wife Ivonne, the mother of their four kids, was fifteen when she ran away with Tino to join the circus, after a bad beating at home. Her in-laws never accepted her.
Ivonne wants to liberate and educate the kids. “You have kids to give them everything, not for them to give everything to you.” She feels Tino’s father, veteran performer Don Gilberto and Senhora Lupe are exploiting their grandkids.
But that’s the way it’s been for generations, the way Don Gilberto and Dona Lupe were raised. ‘Mama’ Lupe, who sells snacks, explains,
“You start from the bottom and work your way up. We started from nothing, just a ring. People brought their own chairs, kids sat on the ground, bit by bit a tent, another, grandstands.”
But Tino keeps working to pay back Gilberto- loans for new circus equipment and loans. The economy is so bad, sometimes they set up the tents and no one comes.
Tino’s grooming his eldest Cascara to run the circus after him. He does aerial work and trains to be the new animal trainer. Doting Tino observes “Cacaritas leaves two or three girls behind in each town.”
Moises, the middle son, explains. “I’ve only lived in the circus. Just circus, only circus more that 100 years pouring our hearts into it.”
Watching the kids in the towns they travel through, youngest son Julio muses, “That’s all they do, go to school and play, they only go to school.”
Tino’s five-year-old niece, Naydelin, proud of her circus blood, joins the circus, determined to travel with them and skip school. Her mother Erika, who fell in love with a “settled man” and left the nomadic life, is worried. She wants Naydelin to be school, unlike her own generation.
Erika and her other “settled ” sister Rayna, who both miss circus life, regularly visit the circus to perform.
Brother Tacho moves into his wife’s Alejandra’s house and the family turns on the “evil” woman who’s destroying the harmony of the circus.
“We just made it clear to him that she’s too old for him. That woman should never have down that. You should look for someone who can give you kids for the circus.” After six months in a house, Tacho comes back to the circus, dragging Alejandra with him.
Tacho rides the “Globe Of Death” a motorcycle act in a massive cage. Cages are a uniting metaphor; Ivonne complains she’s in a cage. A close up of caged lion cubs reminds us that these happy kids are trapped with no other survival skills then the acts they’ve trained to perform.
There’s a wonderful holiday sequence following the circus kids on a rare day off, scoping out a deserted villa. “One day I’ll live in a house like this.” asserts one of the brothers.
The film with its resplendent found colors (the colors of Mexico and traditional circus posters) is filled with poetic images. Even with the family problems on display, the images enchant and seduce us to run away with the Gran Circo Mexico (like regretful Ivonne.) Premiered In Los Angeles at the Los Angeles Film Festival, 2010.