Circo De Mayo

The road circus thrived in the 20th century β€” Circo questions if it’s just as valid in the 21st.

May 20 & 22, 7 p.m., May 21, 9 p.m.
Metro Cinema (Citadel Theatre)
4 out of 5 Stars

Tradition or the modern technological world, which path should a family follow? These are not easy questions for any family at any time but are particularly dramatically posed in a striking documentary playing at the Metro Cinema this weekend. Circo (2010) by filmmaker Aaron Schock (Song of Roosevelt Ave., 2005) takes an in-depth look at a family-run Mexican circus.

The focus is Tino Ponce, the ringmaster, his parents, his family, his wife and children. The group has charm and talent but it’s a modest show, which plays all over the smaller towns in Mexico but doesn’t have resources or acts to play the larger cities. Tino’s father owns the circus and his grandfather owned it before that, going back 100 years. It was once larger but when the grandfather died the four sons split into four circuses. Tino’s brother and sister married “town” people and left circus life but his brother returns to his motorcycle act in “The Globe of Doom” during the course of the film. Tino loves the circus and wants to carry on the tradition teaching his children the acts and using all the family to build and restore it to its former glory. The film examines the day to day life and amply demonstrates that although circus life has beauty, romance and skill, it’s also hard work — a tough, physically demanding life, without many conveniences, that never lets up and pushes out many of the skills that are required in the “town” world like education: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Tino’s wife, Ivonne, another “town” person, who married into the life, has reached her limit. She wants Tino to give up pursuing what she sees as diminishing returns, to make the welfare of his family (wife and children) his main concern and to leave the circus. Tino believes the circus is his family.

It’s a fascinating film because, although it’s ostensibly about the circus life with all its colourful drama, it could be about any family which follows a craft that takes a lifetime to learn, and which may be irrelevant or meaningless in the world by the time they learn it. Do you continue a tradition and hope for a rebirth of fashion or give up and follow a contemporary world which may be equally irrelevant at some future point? It’s the very stuff of life.

Schock makes a compelling film that never condescends and treats everyone — from the oldest patriarch to the youngest female child — with dignity. They all tell their own stories and leave the viewer to decide for themselves.

Schock is also the film’s cinematographer, capturing  everything from the circus’s ethereal beauty during performances to the harsh mechanics of putting up the show at each location and keeping the aging trucks and equipment functioning. From the opening shot of the string of dirty incandescent bulbs receding into the distance to a pole flying the colourful Mexican flag, to the symbolic shot of the sun going down over the main tent, to the images of the open road and uncertain future coming towards the trucks it’s a film of uncommon visual beauty and honesty of expression.

Equally arresting is the soundtrack by Tucson Arizona-based Calexico, the Americana/Indy-Latin band, fronted by John Convertino and Joey Burns, which also seems to embody the push and pull between tradition and the modern world.

It’s an engaging film that won Best Documentary at the Hamptons Film Festival in 2010 and has been an official selection at many other festivals.

Sharp-eyed viewers, who read the credits, will also note the film is dedicated to Lhasa De Sela (1972-2010), the late American-born, Mexican-raised singer who lived for a time in a similar world in Pocheros, a circus/theatre group, with her sisters, and whose too-short career also reflected many of the same concerns.



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