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Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (15th September 2011).
The Film

Circo (Aaron Schock, 2010)


According to director Aaron Schock (in ‘The Making of Circo’ featurette included on this DVD release, Circo was originally intended to be a documentary about corn farmers in Mexico; Schock’s idea behind shooting a documentary in Mexico was to ‘revers[e] the documentary lens’, as he claims that most American-made documentaries about Mexican culture focus exclusively on the migration of Mexican workers into the United States. In contrast with this dominant approach towards Mexico and its culture, Schock wanted to explore an issue that would ‘somehow convey the richness and complexity of a whole world order in crisis’.

During production of his planned documentary about corn farmers, by coincidence a travelling circus arrived in the Mexican town where Schock was staying, and Schock became ‘curious and wanted to know more’ about the lives of the people who worked in the circus. Thus Schock changed his subject and chose instead to focus on the Circo Mexico, a family circus owned and managed for over a century by the Ponce family. As the documentary developed, Schock found himself led into an examination of the tensions between the older and younger generations, and his work with the Ponce family allowed him to ‘somehow get at these themes of the nature of filial responsibility, of the weight of cultural inheritance, and how tradition can be both a gift as well as a burden’.


Schock’s documentary is in the observational style, allowing the subjects to speak for themselves without the ‘guiding voice’ of a narrator or the interference of an onscreen interviewer. Scattered throughout the film, there are also some poetic montages depicting the lives of the people working in the circus. It’s perhaps surprising, considering Schock’s assertion that he wanted to ‘revers[e] the documentary lens’, that Schock didn’t elect to follow the more modern reflexive style of documentary filmmaking; however, Circo is a far more classical documentary than the (postmodern) works of filmmakers like Nick Broomfield and Michael Moore, owing more to the work of the documentary makers associated with the Direct Cinema movement – such as Albert and David Maysles (Salesman, 1960), D A Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back, 1965) and Richard Leacock (Primary, 1960).

Schock returned to Mexico approximately eight times over the course of two years (see Kaufman, 2010: np), and the resultant documentary follows the circus manager, Juventino (or ‘Tino’), his wife Ivonne and their children Cascaras, Julio, Moises, Naydelin and Alexia. The circus is owned by Tino’s parents Lupe and Gilberto. Tension sets in as Ivonne, who ran away from her family at the age of fifteen to live and travel with Tino, decides that she wants a ‘better’ and more stable and sedentary life for herself and her children (‘Any circus moves really fast [….] After two days at most, you move on’, we are told in voice-over as the circus is shown on the road), and attempts to convince Tino that he (and Tino and Ivonne’s children) is being exploited by his parents during a period in which the circus is struggling financially: at one point, Tino tells us that although the family circus has many good acts, ‘right now it’s not strong enough to perform in cities. It’s always tough, because I’m just one person’. Highlighting the exploitation of Tino and his family, Ivonne says that Tino’s father ‘has what he has because of the sweat of Tino and the kids. The only one who benefits here is Tino’s father. I believe these are the systems of the past’. (Later, she confronts Tino and says that he should choose between the circus and his family, devoting more time to her and the children, suggesting he is being robbed by his father: ‘Stop working and see how your dad starts squealing’.) Challenging the perception of circus life as free and romantic, Ivonne asserts that, ‘From the outside, people see it and say […] “How wonderful it is to live in a circus”. We’re trapped in our circus world [….] Caged like that’. However, when she confronts Tino and tries to persuade him to leave the circus life behind, he tells her, ‘I was born and raised in the circus. If I leave, that won’t be right’, and at an earlier point in the film, he has already told us that the circus demands commitment: ‘My family is here at the circus’, Tino intones in voiceover before adding, ‘The circus forever, through the good and the bad. Always the circus’.


However, Tino reveals that things are becoming hard for the circuses due to rising taxes in Mexico and the concomitant increases in both new equipment and the cost of renting spaces for their performances. As Tino, who is struggling with debts, says, ‘So you keep moving and working to pay off the circus expenses’. (In a separate sequence, Tino’s mother wisely notes that, ‘The load makes the donkey work’.) There is also a lot of competition too and, in Tino’s words, ‘Sometimes nobody comes to the circus because the economy is so bad in Mexico’.

Tino and Ivonne’s children are shown working and preparing for their acts. ‘’The kids from the town just go to school and pray; that’s all they do’, one of Ponces’ children tells us: ‘They go to school, and then they’re free. I say they don’t do anything’. In one sequence, Schock juxtaposes the training of the animals (as Tino teaches his eldest son to be an animal tamer) with a scene in which Tino’s father forces Tino and Ivonne’s five year old daughter Naydelin to practise backflips until she cries. Tino and Ivonne’s children represent the circus’ future: ‘Without children, there is no circus’, Tino’s father declares whilst distributing tickets in the town of Compostela. However, although they are dedicated to their work, even the children are aware of their exploitation: as Tino tells us, they frequently tell him, ‘We’re just employees, not your children’. Nevertheless, Tino sees it as his responsibility to teach his children a strong work ethic: ‘My duty as a father is to train my kids’, he says before revealing that he performed his first act at the age of six, balancing on a pole that was poised on his father’s forehead. Reflecting on his upbringing, Tino declares that, ‘The circus is tough and beautiful: it’s both things’.


This ‘tough’ side, the cost of life in the circus, is explored through Tino, who having never had a formal education is being taught to read and write by his wife Ivonne. Tino and his brother Tachito (or ‘Tacho’) have also struggled with relationships, and even Tino’s eldest son claims to have had ‘A lot of girlfriends’ – so many that he claims that he cannot remember all of their names or even the towns in which he met them. In a sojourn from the focus on the work at the circus, Tacho meets an older woman and leaves the circus to live with her. ‘That woman is like a devil’, Tacho and Tino’s father declares, asserting that he advises his sons to ‘Look for a younger woman who can give you a family, for the future of the circus’. However, eventually Tacho returns to the circus, his female companion in tow, claiming that he couldn’t ‘get used to the house’ and needed to return to the more nomadic lifestyle to which he is accustomed. (Tino and Tacho also have a sister, Reyna, who is considered the ‘black sheep’ of the family due to her decision to leave the circus and get married; however, from time to time Reyna returns to the circus and performs with the troupe.)


Circo is uncut and runs for 71:17 mins (PAL).


The film was shot on standard definition digital video (using a Panasonic DVX100B camera) and is presented here in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, which seems to be roughly commensurate with its theatrical aspect ratio (presumably 1.85:1). It is presented with anamorphic enhancement, and offers a very clean image. Visually, this is a very good presentation of a shot-on-DV documentary.



Audio is presented in Mexican Spanish, via a two-channel track that seems to have some subtle surround encoding, showing off the excellent score by Calexico. Optional English subtitles are provided.


The disc opens with skippable bonus trailers (6:56), for The Peddler, Starsuckers and Abel.

- ‘The Making of Circo’ (3:53)
In this short interview, Aaron Schock suggest that he had an ‘idea of reversing the direction of the documentary lens’ and make a documentary about Mexico ‘and find a story that could somehow convey the richness and the complexity of a whole world order in crisis’. The documentary was originally to be about corn farmers, and by coincidence the circus came to town. Schock became ‘curious and wanted to know more’ about the circus. Schock realised that Tino was ‘at that critical juncture between his parents and the older generations, and his children and the younger generation; through Tino, Schock could ‘somehow get at these themes of the nature of filial responsibility, of the weight of cultural inheritance, and how tradition can be both a gift as well as a burden’. He also reveals that he wasn’t ‘fully aware of the tensions within the family’ until his third visit to the country.

- ‘The Ponces Now’ (7:48)
In this featurette, it is revealed that Ivonne returned to the circus after living away from it for two months, but demands that Tino split from his parents and form his own circus. Tino agreed to this. This short feature documents a screening of the film in Mexico, after which the Ponce family and Schock field questions from the audience.

- ‘Calexico on the Making of the Circo Score’ (10:44)
At Calexico Studio, Joey Burns and John Convertino discuss the haunting minimalist score for the film. They reveal that they collect instruments ‘of all kinds, whether we can play them or not’. Their approach to composition is to ‘try different sounds’ and build on them, and try to make ‘the characters of the instruments […] connect with those characters on screen’. We also follow them during a performance of the score in London.

Trailer (1:20).


Considering Circo was Aaron Schock’s first feature length documentary, it is an amazing film that shows mastery of the form and its material. The film exhibits sympathy for the life of the Ponces and maintains an objective balance in its representation of the conflict between Ivonne and the traditions represented by Tino’s family: Schock has since claimed that ‘I don't claim to be objective but I felt that because I couldn't quite decide who was right, I wanted to portray both sides and let the audience decide’ (quoted in Kaufman, 2010: np). It is a fascinating and thought-provoking film.

Kaufman, Debra, 2010: ‘Behind the Lens: Circo’. Creative Cow. [Online.]

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