A century-old, family-run Mexican traveling circus may be the main attraction of director-cinematographer Aaron Schock’s bittersweet documentary, but “Circo” has much more on its mind than just trapeze artists and tiger acts.
Tino Ponce operates Circo Mexico, which journeys across the Mexican countryside in search of paying customers. Wanting to please his father and continue the family business, Ponce has recruited his young children as performers while laboring night and day to maintain the circus’s faltering financial fortunes. But a growing resentment brewing within his wife about their hardscrabble existence suggests troubles on the horizon.
While documenting the brutal regimen of circus life, “Circo” also peels back the curtain on the Ponce family’s inner dynamics, revealing generational divides and money worries that threaten to tear apart a marriage. Buttressed by indie-rock band Calexico’s evocative score, Schock’s film observes this family drama with a sympathetic but clear-eyed view of a vanishing way of life. And because “Circo” refuses to be sentimental in its handling of the material, the story’s twists become all the more poignant. [Synopsis provided by LAFF]
(Mexico, USA, 2010, 75 mins, HDCam 23.98)
Directed By: Aaron Schock
Executive Producer: Sally Jo Fifer
Producers: Aaron Schock, Jannat Gargi
Writers: Aaron Schock, Mark Becker
Cinematographer: Aaron Schock
Editor: Mark Becker
[EDITOR’S NOTE: indieWIRE is profiling the Narrative and Documentary Competition filmmakers who are screening their films at the Los Angeles Film Festival]
Director Aaron Schock on why he makes documentaries, and on the inspiration that lead him to direct “Circo”…
I make films to satisfy my curiosity about the world, and the inspiration to make “Circo” was to examine rural Mexico. Once I found the subject of the traveling circus, questions emerged that I just had to answer. How could this way of life continue for over a century, given the hardships involved? The circus is unlike almost anything else in that it is totally consuming, that there is no separation between your art, work and life (with the one big exception being documentary filmmaking, of course). I was interested in why people continued despite the sacrifices, and how individuals negotiate their individual relationship to this all consuming enterprise.
The inspiration to make “Cico” was a desire 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. Instead, I wanted to go deep into the Mexican countryside and find a story that could communicate both the richness and the complexities of a vast culture and social order unfamiliar to most Americans. My original plan was to make a film about corn farmers. But one night while I was in a small village doing field research, a traveling circus came to town. That night I went to the circus, the plan changed.
Over the next several days, I got to know the family that had brought this little bit of magic and diversion to this poor farming town. The Ponces had been living and performing on the road continuously since the late 19th Century, but what I discovered was so far removed from the stereo-type of “circus types.” Instead, I encountered a family working extremely hard to run a small business and to maintain some control over their destiny with the cultural resources passed down to them through the generations. In other words, I found the story that I had been looking for, but just not the one I had expected.
Schock on the surprising discoveries he made while shooting his documentary…
It often happens in documentary that you discover your story sometime after you have chosen your subject. When I began filming, I didn’t know I was about to enter a simmering family dispute between a husband and wife over whether they should pass their century-old circus tradition on to their children. The heart of the conflict was an archly conflicting view of filial responsibility: Should parents serve children, or should children serve parents? What I felt I was witnessing was really a process of value change in rural Mexico, and the stains that that change caused in this particular tradition and in this particular marriage. Overtime, it was clear that I would interweave the story of the fading of the circus tradition and the dissolution of this marriage.
Schock on his solo approach and the challenges it brings about…
Probably my biggest challenge was also one of my greatest assets. During production I worked completely alone. There are some very obvious cost savings, but that isn’t the reason I work this way. I do so because I feel that being alone really enables me to achieve the intimacy that I want with my subjects, and it allows me to use all my energies to focus on my relationship with the subjects and not to the crew. Moreover, I come to film from a photography background so for me directing and being behind the camera are really one and the same thing, and can’t imagine relinquishing that role. I am not saying this is the best way to work, but it is the only way I know how. In the whole process of filmmaking, it’s what I love most.
But this approach does not come without certain difficulties and liabilities. When you are lost in not knowing what you should film next, or when you need someone to be looking over your shoulder, or just need some reassurance you are doing something of value, it can be a challenge when in the field.
Schock on what he hopes audiences will take away from “Circo,” and on his own inspirations as a filmmaker…
My hope is that “Circo” tells both a universal story while allowing the audience to enter into and learn about a specific family, tradition, and country. The Ponce families story is really a universal one about family bonds, filial responsibility, and having to decide what right for your children and family. And it is about a beautiful traveling circus, beautiful, and a hell of a lot of fun.
My goal is to create a compelling cinematic experience that emotionally and forcefully conveys the world inhabited by my subjects. I feel most inspired by this visually immersive approach to documentary, films like “Iraq in Fragments” and “To Be And To Have” and just about anything by Joris Ivens. That’s what’s going on in one half of my mind while I work, the part connected to the eye. At the same time, I am always looking for the larger meanings and metaphors, to the small stories speak to more universal themes. This side of my brain has the Maysles brothers and so many other great documentarians of that generation.
And on what’s in store for his future…
Bring your checkbook and I’ll tell you. More seriously, this is my freshman effort and I still have my final exams before me – bringing “Circo” out into the world. I’ll be ready to jump into a new project after that.