HARDSCRABBLE LIFE: Two of Gran Circo Mexico?s 10-member Ponce family. (First Run Features )
"Circo" is a marvel of a documentary, a clear-eyed and affectionate film that tells a remarkable story with both visual and personal sensitivity. More impressive still, it's largely the work of one man.
Filmmaker Aaron Schock made eight visits to Mexico over a 21-month period to record the activities of the tiny Gran Circo Mexico and the 10-member Ponce family, including five children, who make it happen. He not only produced and directed, he was his film's cameraman and sound recordist as well.
Interested in doing a project about the interior of Mexico and one that did not involve the specter of immigration, Schock got what he was looking when he came across this small but feisty circus. The show travels by camper and truck across some of the most rural parts of Mexico, staying one night or at most two in the tiny towns along the way.
Leader of the pack is Tino Ponce, proud of his place in a long line of Ponces who have owned circuses for more than 100 years. Working with his wife, his parents, his four children, a brother and a niece, he puts up and strikes the big top almost every night, takes care of the tigers and llamas, then drives to the next town and does it all over again.
It's backbreaking work, an exhausting and grueling endeavor, but Tino is a true believer whose motto is "the circus forever." Yes it's difficult, he admits, "but when the show starts we become artists of the circus." A performer since he was 6, he would be happy to die in this life.
Tino's children, especially his oldest son Cascaras, are proud to have lives as entertainers and even happier not to have to go to school. Schock's camera catches these young kids in what seems like perpetual rehearsal, practicing the acts they hope will carry them to adult success.
But this circus, it turns out, has more problems than the inevitable economic difficulties. There are complex family dynamics to be dealt with. Tino's practical wife Ivonne, who ran away with him when she was but 15, comes from a "settled" family of town dwellers, and consequently she has never been completely accepted by Tino's difficult parents, Don Gilberto and Dona Lupe.
Now that her family is growing, those issues re-emerge in another form. Ivonne worries about the kind of future her children can have without formal education. She wants something better for them and is concerned that, instead of providing for their offspring as parents should, they are letting their children's hard work keep them in business.
Because of all the time he put in, filmmaker Schock ended up being considered almost like a member of the family and consequently was privy to intimate discussions and a web of personal difficulties that directly bear on Gran Circo Mexico's future.
More than that, Shock has a fine eye for the unexpected shopworn beauty of this kind of vagabond life, for things like the glow of ancient incandescent bulbs and the sheen of hand-made circus costumes. When Tino feelingly says "the circus is tough and beautiful," he's speaking for this fine film as well.