Thursday, March 31, 2011

Aaron Schock's CIRCO: Tracking the days of a small Mexican circus and its performers

It's no secret that the circus -- generically and individually -- has seen better days. Despite the incursions of Cirque de Soleil and the Big Apple variations, the old-fashion circus is pretty much a thing of the past. (For us New Yorkers, rather than worrying whether the lion tamer will get eaten or the trapeze artist break his neck, we've had Spider Man of late to keep happy those audiences hoping for a fatal accident.) In Mexico it may be a different story, as traveling circuses that visit villages in the hinterlands still have a hold -- albeit lessening -- on the populace. One circus in particular provides the subject and the cast of the new documentary CIRCO.

Budding filmmaker Aaron Schock (shown at right), who spends a lot of time in Mexico, followed one of these circuses (a family-run-for-generations affair) that is still trying to mount a good show and please its audience -- even as that audience grows smaller, the debts grow larger, and the circus itself is beset with internecine struggles. (Full disclosure: I know Mr. Schock slightly, having met him a few times, due to the late-and somewhat-lamented Jackson Heights Food and Film Festival and the fact that his in-laws -- lovely people -- live two floors below our household here in Queens.) As a person, Schock strikes me as pleasant and smart, what I'd call an active-positive personality. As a filmmaker, while this comes through, too, what shines ever more strongly is his unwillingness to push things in any untoward fashion. He watches and records, and then edits for the moment and its meaning, put-ting it all together so that we get a strong sense of both the circus and its "acts," and of the cast of family members that define it.

A few years back I was lucky enough to see Schock's early film (not even mentioned on the IMDB), a small, maybe 15-minute look at a family of immigrants who collect recycling material from the trash put out by many of the apartment buildings and homes in the Jackson Heights area. This, too, was a wonderful, quiet, honest look at a particular group of people. Since seeing it, I have never noticed any recycling collectors here in the area without thinking again about that film. While I am unlikely to do the same regarding Circo -- only because I won't be seeing many Mexican family circuses -- the new film has a similar, memorable effect.

Without any sense of undue prying, you get to know these people and their work and even learn a good deal about their problems: the shaky marriage of Tino Ponce and his wife Ivonne; their four kids; Tino's angry/distant dad, and assorted other relatives. Just how bad is the strain on this mariage? Is Gramps making maybe too much money off the work of his son and grandkids? And the circus animals!  Even religion rears its head.

Schock's ability to probe without prying is one of the wonderful pluses of the film, which may remind you of the recently-released Bill Cunningham New York in its gentlemanly refusal to insist while allowing us to piece together the puzzle at hand. If we don't finally get all of the pieces, there is enough to give us a remarkable picture of a family, a circus, a place and the particular time in which all of this comes together.

You'll have a number of questions by the film's end, some of which maybe answered in the end title cards, or even by the director himself, as Schock is making some pit stops during the film's release and will be glad to bring you up to date on the family, the circus and what's currently happening with them both (he remains in good touch with the little group). The cinematography (by the filmmaker himself) is mostly aces, and the music is, as well. It's by a group called Calexico, and Schock promises that this music will eventually make its way to CD or download capability.

Circo, from First Run Features, opens this Friday, April 1, in New York at the IFC Center, and in the weeks to come in some 20 cities around the country.  Click here for cities, dates and theaters.  This weekend Mr. Schock will appear in person at the IFC Center at the 7:50 and 9:40 shows on Friday and Saturday, and Sunday at 4:10.

No comments: