Set within a century-old traveling circus, CIRCO is an intimate portrait of a Mexican family struggling to stay together despite mounting debt, dwindling audiences, and a simmering family conflict that threatens this once-vibrant family tradition. Tino, the ringmaster, is driven by his dream to lead his parents’ circus to success and corrals the energy of his whole family, including his four young children, towards this singular goal. But his wife Ivonne is determined to make a change. Feeling exploited by her in-laws, she longs to return to her kids a childhood lost to laboring in the circus.
Filmed along the backroads of rural Mexico, this cinematic road movie opens the viewer to the luminous world of a traveling circus while examining the universal themes of family bonds, filial responsibility, and the weight of cultural inheritance. Through an intricately woven story of a marriage in trouble and of a century-old family tradition that hangs in the balance, CIRCO asks: To whom and to what should we ultimately owe our allegiances?
The Director: Aaron Schock
The inspiration to make CIRCO was a desire to reverse the direction of the documentary lens that has typically looked at Mexico only from the border up and singularly through the subject of immigration. Instead, I wanted to go deep into the Mexican countryside and find a story that could communicate both the richness and the complexities of a vast culture and social order unfamiliar to most Americans. My original plan was to make a film about corn farmers. But one night while I was in a small village in the state of Nayarit doing field research, a traveling circus came to town.
That night I went to the circus. The plan changed.
The Ponce family’s “Gran Circo Mexico” packed in much more magic and excitement than you would have imagined from a 10-member family, of whom 5 were children. I was taken in by their beguiling performances of contorsionismo (contorionism), cuerdas astrales (aerial ropes), la cuerda floja (the tightrope), the young peyaso (clown) and the remarkable globo de la muerta (the globe of death). Accenting this ambience was the somewhat honky-tonk atmosphere provided by the village audience on the bleachers, and the communication between them and the performers on stage. Scanning the faces of the abuelos with their grandchildren on their knees, I couldn’t escape the feeling I was witnessing a rich, complex, and authentic rural tradition.
Over the next several days, I got to know the family that brought to this poor farming town a little bit of magic and diversion. The Ponces had been living and performing on the road continuously since the late 19th Century, but what I discovered was so far removed from the stereo-type of “circus types.” Instead, I encountered a family working extremely hard to run a small business and to maintain some control over their destiny with the cultural resources passed down to them through the generations.
In other words, I found the story that I had been looking for, but just not the one I had expected.
Returning many months later and prepared to start filming, I was immediately struck by the amount of labor involved in running the circus, especially for the children, who
not only train and perform their acts each night, but who also must strike and pitch the circus each week as the Ponces move from town to town. The costs of this life were immediately evident. When I filmed 12-year-old Moises Ponce driving in a stake early one morning on my second day of shooting, I knew CIRCO would have to be
about the hard choices this family had to make. When I filmed 10-year-old Alexia Ponce explaining to me that she could not read or write – and later when I filmed her
father Tino Ponce struggling to spell his own name – these choices came into even sharper focus.
It often happens in documentary that you discover your story sometime after you have chosen your subject. When I began filming, I didn’t know I was about to enter
a simmering family dispute between a husband and wife over whether they should pass their century-old circus tradition on to their children. The heart of the conflict
was an archly conflicting view of filial responsibility: Should parents serve children, or should children serve parents? What I felt I was witnessing was really a process of value change in rural Mexico, and the stains that change caused in this particular tradition and in this particular marriage. Over time, it was clear that I would interweave the story of the fading of the circus tradition and the dissolution of this marriage.
Over the course of filming, events began to happen with other family members, and CIRCO’s subplots began to take shape. Tino’s younger brother Tacho suddenly left
the circus and moved in with a settled woman, causing strain on the circus. Tino’s 5-year-old niece Naydelin was struggling to make the decision to continue living
and performing with the circus, or to return home to her settled mother and go to kindergarten. As I found each circus member negotiating their relationship to a
tradition that permeates every aspect of their lives, it became clear that CIRCO would also have to be about the weight of cultural inheritance – that is, what it means to be born into a cultural tradition, and how people individually navigate that inheritance.
My hope is that CIRCO tells both a universal story while allowing the audience to enter into a specific family, tradition, and country. I think that the Ponce family’s dilemma is a universal one experienced by millions of rural Mexicans for whom a way of life that has sustained them for centuries is increasingly unsustainable, and where
other options are few.
Circo opens in the UK on 18th June