“The circus is tough and beautiful” says Tino, the ringmaster and central character of Aaron Schock’s documentary Circo (2010), charting the ups and downs of a Mexican troupe. One could say the same of Schock’s film. The film follows the Ponce clan, who have worked in the circus for over a hundred years but mounting debts and Mexico’s erratic economy strain both the business and family life.
Schock follows one branch of the family through rural Mexico and charts the breakdown of Tino’s marriage to Ivonne. Despite its name the Gran Circo Mexico is a small outfit, although Tino dreams of one day being successful enough to tour Mexico’s major towns and cities.
The grim reality is that often the villagers cannot afford the luxury of entertainment, so the family are forced to offer tickets for free. While Tino’s children work day and night to make the circus a success, training for hours, unpacking and setting up the tent, feeding the animals, amongst other chores, it is Tino’s father who pockets the meagre proceeds.
Such perceived injustice riles Ivonne to the point of wanting to split up her family. Throughout, she expresses her worries about Tino putting the circus before her and claims that she wants her children, all illiterate, to have an education. Her youngest looks in amazement at some children they pass and comments “all they do is go to school and play”. No such normality for the Ponce offspring. Life in the circus, Schock suggests, is both a blessing and a curse.
Of course their work is exotic – the family travel with caged tigers and a lion, miniature ponies, llamas and a camel – and they are all skilled performers. Tino’s eldest son has no difficulty attracting adoring girlfriends in every village. But as any good performer knows, practice makes perfect, and Schock carefully captures the endless toil that lies behind the children’s acrobatics, the clowning and daring feats of endurance.
There’s no denying that the circus exerts a pull on both performer and spectator. What is remarkable about Circo is how Shock manages, in such a short space of time, to capture both sides of circus life: the glamour and the grime, the thrills and the hard graft.
As well as being a documentary, Circo is part-road movie. Schock shows us the real Mexico, not the picture postcard variety. Here, stunning landscapes are set against rural poverty. The changing scenery gives us an idea of the vast distances covered by the troupe, at the same time as suggesting the monotony of continuous travel. By the end, one realises that life on the road is as constrictive as it is liberating.
The domestic troubles of Tino and Ivonne invest the film with a gritty realism that is reflected in Schock’s cinematography – he gives as much importance to the lines of clothing hanging out to dry between trailers as he does the performers on the tightropes. The message is clear: the Ponce clan are as confined by the circus as the animals that accompany them.