posted under: documentary

circo: portrait of a circus family

I’ve just watched Circo, a brilliant documentary about a small and struggling family circus in Mexico. Directed, produced and beautifully photographed by Aaron Schock, Circo documents the artistry, endless work and frequent conflicts of the Ponce family as they travel across Mexico with their circus tents, animals and equipment, performing for small audiences in rural towns. Life for the Ponces is hard and financially precarious, and the film clearly admires their stamina and devotion to circus traditions.

Circo had a theatrical release in 2011 but was also shown on PBS’s Independent Lens program, which offers this summary:

The Ponce family circus has been living and performing in rural Mexico for seven generations. Its history dates back to the late 19th century, when Genaro Ponce founded the Circo Ponce Hermanos. Today, the circus members are still carrying on their ancestors’ traditions. But their performing days may be numbered.

Tino, the ringmaster, has long been driven by his dream to lead his parents’ circus to success. He urges everyone in the family, including his four young children, to help meet this goal. But Tino’s wife Ivonne is determined to make a change. Feeling exploited by her in-laws, she regrets that her children have spent their childhoods laboring in the circus. Can Tino choose between his circus dreams and a wife who wants a better life for their children?

Filmed along the back roads of Mexico, Circo is an intimate portrait of a family trying to stay together despite mounting debt, dwindling audiences, and simmering conflict. With a marriage in trouble and a century-old tradition hanging in the balance, the Ponce family circus struggles to make a living off its artistry, sweat, and wit.

The story of the family and the history of their circus is told through the lives living it, in voiceover and in candid conversations between family members. The Ponce family’s commitment to the circus is a commitment of the heart, as Tino narrates:

A circus moves really fast. So it comes to these towns and it’s there just a day. The most is two days and then you move on. . . The circus forever. Through the good and the bad. Always the circus.

In one scene, the camera follows Tino’s father closely as he drives through a town, giving away a few free tickets to children, who clamor for them at his car door. He knows his audience. “Without children,” he says, “there is no circus.”

Tino’s brother Tacho leaves the circus for love at one point, but he returns six months later, unable to adjust to the rhythms and ways of life outside the circus tent. His new wife comes with him, although she regrets and possibly resents having to leave her work and family. Tacho explains why he had to return:

My hands, my hands — they are only good for putting up and taking down the circus. Not to work for other people.

The circus, Tino says, is both tough and beautiful. But his wife Ivonne desperately wants a different life:

With Tino I fight a lot about this. . . .You have kids to give them everything, not for them to give everything to you. And they give us too much. Because they work a lot. Too much.

And she’s absolutely right, of course. The children work incredibly hard and have little or no time for a formal education, although they are all gifted artists and performers in their own right. A decision to leave is made during the film, but we learn in an update that it was remade after the film ended. You can view an update on the Ponce family and a clip of Aaron Schock talking about the film on the PBS Independent Lens website.

The Tuscon-based band Calexico wrote the film’s subtle and superb soundtrack. In the clip below, band members Joey Burns and John Convertino discuss the process of making music for Circo.

saul leiter: in no great hurry

SaulLeiter_31_Exacta 1948
Exacta, 1948, Saul Leiter

I’ve just watched In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter, a 2013 documentary by Tomas Leach. Understated and quiet, the film follows Leiter around his life, self-consciously walking the line between wanting to get closer to the man and the artist while not wanting to be intrusive — a tension that runs through the film and gives a tentative, hesitant feel to the camera work and Leach’s side of the conversation. Leach’s awe of Leiter was palpable in the film and understandable — but it sometimes got in the way of his filmmaking; it was visible in his choices to the point that it narrowed Leiter’s story and the viewer’s experience of it.

Most of the film was shot in Leiter’s studio in the East Village, where he’d lived since 1952, and cuts between Leiter speaking to the camera, making coffee, slowly rummaging through piles of film, prints, papers and boxes accrued over decades, and walking the streets near his studio looking for things to shoot. The 13 lessons provide the film’s structure, but within it, the meandering pace and lingering focus on everyday surfaces keep Leiter more obscured and contained than revealed, which I found unsatisfying. And which drove me to pause the film multiple times to revisit Leiter’s work to get a deeper and more direct experience of his way of looking and seeing.

Yet by the end of the film, I found the low-key encounter with Leiter as directed by Leach satisfying on its own terms if not mine. It gave me a more complete picture of Leiter than I’d had, and I walked away convinced of the value of being, like Leiter, in no great hurry — either in life or in art. And pausing to follow my own meandering diversions made watching the film a richer and more complete experience for me.

I find Leiter’s work deeply affecting. His photos give you privileged entry into private worlds and lyrical moments which, captured in time, live out of time, beyond their moment, forever accessible. Leiter died in November 2013, which makes Leach’s film a lovely gift to Leiter and the world. As Teju Cole writes in an obituary of Leiter in the New Yorker:

Undoubtedly, the charm of some of Leiter’s pictures lies in the fact that they depict fifties places, fifties cars, and fifties people (we rarely dress so well today), and that the analog reds and greens are more moving, somehow, than what our own digital cameras or streetscapes can offer up. But pictures such as “Through Boards” (1957), “Canopy” (1958), and “Walking With Soames” (1958) would be winners in any era. They are high points of lyric photography which, once seen, become—like all the best pictures and poems and paintings—a permanent part of our lives.

sainsbury’s christmas truce, 1914

sainsburys xmas 2014
truce 2
History as advertising becomes advertising as history. Compare 1) the sanitized, sickly sentimental 2014 Sainsbury’s Christmas commercial Christmas is for Sharing, which uses the 1914 Christmas truce between German and British soldiers in WWI as a feel-good branding opportunity, with 2) this 15-minute piece of oral history about the truce, told by the men who lived it, in Radio 4’s documentary Voices of the First World War. Under the Christmas is for Sharing clip on youtube it says, ‘The chocolate bar featured in the ad is on sale now at Sainsbury’s. All profits (50p per bar) will go to The Royal British Legion and will benefit our armed forces and their families, past and present.’ As if that makes exploiting this moment of history (and the people who lived it) to position and promote the Sainsbury’s brand okay. It doesn’t. If its philanthropic intentions were genuine, Sainsbury’s could simply make the donation without subjecting its target audience to the highly manipulative, beautifully shot (but poorly acted) 3 minutes and 15 seconds of branded history.
In the last of the series for 1914, veterans of the First World War recall the few hours of impromptu ceasefire on 25th December 1914, when German and British troops mingled and played football in No Man’s Land on the Western Front. Drawing on the recollections of soldiers in the oral history collection of the Imperial War Museum and the BBC archive. Narrated by Dan Snow.
About the series:
There are now no living veterans of WW1, but it is still possible to go back to the First World War through the memories of those who actually took part. In a unique partnership between the Imperial War Museums and the BBC, two sound archive collections featuring survivors of the war are brought together for the first time. The Imperial War Museums’ holdings include a major oral history resource of remarkable recordings made in the 1980s and early 1990s with the remaining survivors of the conflict. The interviews were done not for immediate use or broadcast, but because it was felt that this diminishing resource that could never be replenished, would be of unique value in the future. Among the BBC’s extensive collection of archive featuring first hand recollections of the conflict a century ago, are the interviews recorded for the 1964 TV series ‘The Great War’, which vividly bring to life the human experience of those fighting and living through the war.

r4 doc: the twilight world of syd barrett

syd barrett

Listening to Louder than Words on Pink Floyd’s ‘The Endless River’ made me think of early Pink Floyd, which made me think of Syd Barrett, which led me to this very good — and still available — 2012 Radio 4 documentary on his life. You can listen to it here. The summary:

Six years after his death (7th July 2006) Syd Barrett lives on freeze framed, still young and a striking lost soul of the sixties whose brief moment of creativity outshines those long years of solitude shut away in a terraced house in his home town of Cambridge.

This revealing programme hears how his band Pink Floyd (and family) coped with Barrett’s mental breakdown and explores the hurriedly arranged holiday to the Spanish island of Formentera – where the star unravelled. In the programme we also hear about Barrett’s pioneering brand of English psychedelic pop typified on early Pink Floyd recordings ‘Arnold Layne’, ‘See Emily Play’ and the strange songs on Pink Floyd’s impressive debut album ‘The Piper At the Gates of Dawn’.

Undoubtedly Barrett’s experimentation with the drug LSD affected him mentally and the band members reveal how concerned they were when he began to go catatonic on-stage, playing music that had little to do with their material, or not playing at all. By Spring 1968 Barrett was out of the group and after a brief period of hibernation, he re-emerged in 1970 with a pair of albums, ‘The Madcap Laughs’ and ‘Barrett’, but they failed to chart and Barrett retired to a hermit life existing under the watchful gaze of his caring sister Rosemary (featured in the programme).

We hear from David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Rick Wright (one of the last interviews before his sad passing) about how there was little understanding of mental illness when it came to the drug fused culture of the time. These days a strung out star is hurriedly booked into the Priory and given counselling. As this programme reveals Barrett’s mental breakdown was not understood and the steps taken to help him were inappropriate and still rankle the members of Pink Floyd today.

Although, from what I’ve read, Syd was never officially diagnosed, it was assumed by many that he suffered from schizophrenia. It’s been reported by multiple sources, including Roger Waters in an interview, that someone in or connected to the band had contacted RD Laing at the time of Syd’s breakdown, and made an appointment for him. They got Syd into a taxi but on arriving, he wouldn’t get out and meet with Laing. It’s also been reported, but not confirmed, that at some point Laing watched an interview with Syd and based on that, declared him incurable. Not sure that sounds like Laing, and Laing died in 1989 so we can’t know. But if anyone could have helped him, it would have been Laing. So it seems a missed opportunity and sad.