Aaron Schock's fascinating documentary "Circo" is an extremely personal look at a dying art form. The film is centered around a Mexican circus family as they struggle to survive, entertain, and stay together in an increasingly complex economic climate. This single tent extravaganza tours the small towns and sets up an endless stream of one night engagements just to make ends meet. It's a hard life for a family as everyone has a role to play down to the youngest child. From an early age, the kids are indoctrinated into the life with no other alternatives. They perform center stage AND work as crew, with nary a break, as they are really the only employees of the enterprise. While aspects of this lifestyle are unpleasant, to be sure, it is a tradition that has been handed down through the years.
To the film's credit, it examines the Ponce family at face value without making judgements. Tino, the ringmaster and father, can be a harsh taskmaster and his wife (a city woman frequently at odds with her in-laws) has reservations about the children's upbringing. The kids never get an official education--can't read or write--and in one scene, we even see that Tino himself has lacked the same opportunities that most people take for granted. He has to be coached by his wife just to scrawl his name correctly. It's unimaginable by contemporary standards, but the Ponces are truly living the life of a by-gone era. And yet the film is not set to oppose them, but to document their choice. The family is quite close, the kids are dedicated and industrious, and there is a commitment and perseverance that it's hard not to appreciate. Interestingly, as members of the family have left for more normalcy--they are still drawn back to traditions of their circus legacy. At times, it looks like the clan will splinter and divide. Is the struggle worth it? Can this vanishing way of life survive another generation?
"Circo" does a nice job balancing the wonder of the shows (and these kids are very talented) with the realities of their situation. It's a full blooded portrait of a contemporary family. In the end, you really feel as if you understand the lifestyle. You may not always agree with it, but there is a certain grace to its simplicity. Documenting the tumultuous, but loving, bond of two parents in conflict--the film left me wondering what was going to happen. Luckily, the DVD presents a number of special features. Most notable, for me, is an update on the family as they attend the movie's premiere. Anyone interested in the circus should appreciate "Circo." There are bigger and more spectacular presentations available, but this small film has an intimacy which makes it feel refreshingly unique. KGHarris, 9/11.