A sort of 'slice of life' documentary rather than the more narrative-focused approach that is most popular these days (Senna, Project Nim etc.), Circo came as a refreshing and pleasant surprise when a copy was sent for me to review.
The film follows the Ponce family, a group of circus folk who have been touring their big top around Mexico for a number of generations. Although fairly close as a family, the struggles faced by the business as Mexico's economy fails are mirrored in rifts between the Ponces. Ivonne and Timo (who the film spends most of it's time with, along with their kids) are especially struggling. Ivonne feels as though Timo's father, who owns the circus, isn't sharing the profits fairly, taking advantage of the younger generations, treating his children and grandchildren as employees rather than the flesh and blood that they are. Timo can see the truth in this, but feels so bonded to his family and it's circus legacy that he shuns any thought of change.
It can be seen as a metaphor for economic and political problems in the country, but for me it was the warmth and intimacy that kept me enthralled. The director Aaron Shock does an impressive job of getting incredibly close to the family, allowing them to open up completely to the camera whilst remaining unobtrusive and never feeling as though he is manipulating them for the sake of the film. It all comes across as perfectly natural, despite the potentially outlandish subject matter. Shock thankfully avoids milking the quirkiness of the situation or ever poking fun simply for entertainment value. Circo isn't the 'freak-show' that many-a-documentary-filmmaker would have churned out given the opportunity. The hard work the family puts in and the effect it has on their relationships is what the film sticks to and benefits by.
Circo also succeeds as a visual and auditory experience, but still within it's naturalistic style. Shock, who shot the film on his own (partly explaining the unobtrusiveness), keeps his camerawork technically simple - mostly handheld and eschewing distracting filters or unnecessary slick inserts, yet retaining colourful and interesting frames throughout. The vibrant setting helps, but Shock certainly knows when and where to point his camera, picking out some wonderful details during his time with the Ponces. The film's score is provided by Calexico, who do a wonderful job of underscoring everything with a warmth and traditional feel that again doesn't distract and complements the film nicely.
Kept within a succinct 75 minutes, the film is tightly constructed and never meanders despite it lacking a narrative drive. It's a beautiful, touching gem of a film that I would happily recommend to documentary-lovers and otherwise.
The film is released in the UK on DVD on 12th September by Network Releasing. Like the film, the extra features are short, but sweet. There is a 'making of' featurette which is only a few minutes long yet fills in a lot of background on the film's intentions. Interestingly, I learnt through this that Shock originally set out to make a film about cattle farmers in the area, before coming across the local circus on one of his visits. Another featurette is a Q&A session with the Ponce family as they attend a festival screening of the film. This serves as an excellent 'what happened next' coda. Added to this is an interesting, yet not essential short film on the making of Calexico's score.