During its nascent years serious persuasion was needed to convince sneering cultural sceptics that the cinema merited recognition as an art form. For many, the notion of ‘running away to the circus’ evokes a similar response; a stereotype of travelling bands of gypsy families living out of caravans, jumping, flipping, throwing knives and firing out of canons, before moving on elsewhere. High-flying documentary Grazing the Sky (2013) seeks to set the record straight by negating the traditional image of what constitutes a nomadic existence.
Director Horacio Alcala meditates on life, love, personal expression and artistic development by following the exploits of acrobats from all over the world. Featuring a disparate group with seemingly no interconnection other than their love and passion for innumerable circus disciplines, Grazing the Sky flits hither and thither with such bewildering regularity that no overriding message is discernible other than a handful of platitudes about following your dream and doing what you love. As a visual ode to the kind of dedication required to succeed in this realm, and a warning as to its inherent physical dangers, Alcala’s doc achieves its aims.
The ludicrously photogenic bodies of its sculpted subjects makes for undeniably attractive viewing and David Palacios’ cinematography artfully captures the powerful grace, elegance and beauty of the remarkable feats on show. However, this surface level depiction of a troupes-worth of performers in Madrid, Sao Paolo, Montréal, Turin, Lisbon and beyond would have benefited from a more svelte line-up which dug deeper into fewer individual stories. Brief overviews of family backgrounds and poetic streams of consciousness don’t go far enough to personalise any strand and as such the takeaway impression remains disappointingly aloof. Alcala was perhaps aiming for a Brechtian focus of subject rather than subjects but ultimately achieves neither. One benefit of the film’s frequent globetrotting is that the diversity and potential for change offered by an ever-growing medium is made very clear.
Fadi, a muscled performer from Palestine as wide as he is tall, is shown to have set up a circus school as a form of outreach program to rehabilitate teenage girls neglected and abused. This is but one example of many elements where only a few minutes screen time does not do justice to worthwhile material which warranted a closer and more fully rounded inspection. A real strength of Grazing the Sky lies in its eclectic score, chiefly composed by The Irrepressibles, a musical collective led by Jamie McDermott which at the same time complements the synergy and differences of a wide ranging performance art. Just as the spectacle of soaring acrobats draws cries of wonderment from an audience assembled under a big top, Grazing the Sky is certainly visually striking and the accomplishments of its athletic subjects is unquestionably impressive but overall it falls short of the high bar to which it aspires.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens