Behind the Lens: Circo
COW Library : Indie Film & Documentary : Debra Kaufman : Behind the Lens: Circo
If you have ever wanted to run away a join a circus, the award-winning documentary Circo, which was directed, produced, shot and written by Aaron Shock, will make you part of a family-run circus that travels the dusty towns of rural Mexico. But you don't need to be a fan of the circus--or Mexico--to be mesmerized by this story of the Ponce family who struggle with issues of debt, marital conflict and filial responsibility against a backdrop of a century-old family business. All this, and an original soundtrack by indie rockers Calexico makes Circo--Schock's first full-length film--into compelling cinema that both embodies and transcends the documentary genre.
The film is rooted in Schock's own childhood when he traveled rural and small town Mexico with his parents. His parents are semi-retired there and he also spends a lot of time south of the border. "I have a love for the country," says Schock, who speaks Spanish. "Most of the films we see about Mexico tend to start at the border up, but I wanted to go deep behind the border and show the richness of the rural experience. I wanted to find the story that could open up our eyes into that world."
He initially wanted to make a documentary about farmers, and was poking around in a rural community where the circus came to town. "I was looking for a hard-working family trying to make a living based on cultural resources handed down to them that are becoming increasingly unviable," says Schock, who previously had no specific interest in circuses. "The story of the Ponce family and their circus is a universal one where people are having a hard time making a living, children having to work, all the pressure they have tells a bit about what a lot of people are experiencing in that part of Mexico."
Schock's first step was introducing himself--and the idea of making a documentary--to the Ponce family. "It's always the hardest thing in documentary filmmaking," he admits. "But it's what we do, it's our skill. Being friendly, open and straightforward goes a long way." Schock spent several days getting to know the family, but building trust, he points out, doesn't occur in the first encounter. "I had taken some really nice B & W medium portraits of them," he says. "When I came home, I decided this was the story I wanted to tell. I came back several months later and located them. They had no idea I was coming, and I came bearing these portraits."
With his B & W portraits depicting the Ponces, not as exotic or weird circus folks, but with personal and professional dignity, the filmmaker proved his understanding and intent to the family. But Schock doesn't credit his gift of the photographic portraits as being the sole key to jumpstarting the project. "I happened to come across some pretty open, earnest, straightforward folks," he says. "[Ringmaster] Tino's job is to go from one town to the next, gaining the trust of the community. In each town, he waves to everyone, he's super friendly. He presents himself as a straightforward hardworking guy, and people find him honorable."
Schock also gained the family's trust by his own willingness to roll up his sleeves and help in the physical labor of setting up and striking the circus when he wasn't filming. "The first time I saw them move, it was so chaotic," he says. "Tino, at the last minute, threw me a set of keys and said, you're driving. I had to jump in and drive a rig. It was trial by fire."
Although the circus used to travel all over Mexico, over the 21 months that Shock filmed them, they made a circuit in central Mexico, around Jalisco, Nayarit, Sinaloa, Zacatecas and Durango. "It turns out, they kept hitting competition wherever they went," he says. "Their traditional route has been circumscribed by economic situations. The circus had to make just enough money to buy the diesel to get to the next town."
He soon discovered that he had stepped into a roiling family drama. Though the Ponce aging patriarch owns the circus, his son, ringmaster Tino, runs it, energetically leading the family from town to town, hoping for bigger audiences and more success. But Tino's wife Ivonne, not born to the circus life, is angry at what she sees as the greed and control of her in-laws, and unhappy that their four children must work rather than study and play. The tough economic times exacerbated Ivonne's desire to take her children out of the circus life, at the same time that her husband Tino felt a strong loyalty and obligation to his parents and the family's multi-generation circus.
"It often happens in documentary that you discover your story sometime after you have chosen your subject," Schock says. "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 to their children."
Alexia Ponce and Reyna Ponce as seen in CIRCO, a film by Aaron Schock. A First Run Features release.
Interviewing Tino and Ivonne turned into something akin to therapy. "Interviews I did with Tino turned into a bonding experience," he says. "Ivonne had been avoiding interviews. But once I convinced her to sit down with me, she broke down and cried about the kids working too hard. That's when the story came out for me. It wasn't a static portrait of a circus family, but something was happening that I needed to pay attention to."
In between filming, Shock returned to New York to put together fundraising trailers and managed to get a coveted ITVS (Independent Television Service) grant. But calls from the Ponces in Mexico alerted him to important events that triggered each new trip. One was the Day of the Dead celebration, when the entire Ponce family--which had split into four circuses--meet at the home of the matriarch. "I knew I had to be there for that," says Schock, who ultimately made eight trips in less than two years. He also managed to capture events when Tino's younger brother Tacho leaves the circus to move in with a settled woman, causing another crisis in the family. "I knew I had to catch that story," he says. "I happened to be in town when he met her, and there's a quick shot of her in the audience. Then this romance happens." Schock thought he had finished filming when he got a phone call from Ivonne, crying, saying she had done something terrible and was told she had to leave the circus. "I jumped on a plane and came down," he says, revealing that he discovered she had broken the windows on the truck, precipitating a split in the family.
Moisés Galindo as seen in CIRCO, a film by Aaron Schock. A First Run Features release.
As a one-man crew, Schock shot alone, with the Panasonic DVX100B camera, in 24P Standard Def. "I started shooting this a couple of years ago and this was the camera documentarians like James Longley (Iraq in Fragments) were using," says Schock. "For a first-time filmmaker, it was a great camera to work with. Shooting in 24P give this little camera a slightly cinematic feel. Under its best conditions, it can look similar to Super 16mm. And shooting in 24P makes the transfer to film easier." He also recorded entirely with on-board sound except for the interviews, when he used Lavalier mics. "I always thought sound could be the Achilles heel of production," he admits. "But I was always careful to get good sound, and I had earphones on."
Circo, a film by Aaron Schock. A First Run Features release.
The same went for lighting: Schock used only available light. "For the most part, I tried to only shoot when I had good lighting," he says. "And I had the richness of time to shoot when I wanted. If I didn't like the light, I didn't shoot. I waited for the right time of day unless something was happening. The look is due to my being really patient." Nor did he have a tripod or anything else to stabilize the camera; in fact, in one breathtaking shot, the camera climbs the canvas roof of the Big Top to look out on the lights on the circus.
Schock, who previously shot Song of Roosevelt Ave. (2005), an award-winning documentary short about undocumented immigrants in Queens, calls Circo his "education in film." When he made Song of Roosevelt Ave., he says, he had just learned how to turn on the camera but didn't know how to white balance. Although he had learned quite a bit more in the interim, Circo was still a learning experience.
With between 130 and 140 hours of footage, Circo, like most documentaries, took shape in the editing process. "Being a first-time filmmaker, I wanted to work with professionals," says Schock. "I talked to some friends who work in documentaries to ask if they could suggest someone, and someone told me about Mark Becker, an editor who is also a director who'd made a film about Mexico." Among Becker's credits is Romantico, a well-received documentary he directed, produced and shot about a mariachi in San Francisco who goes home for a visit. Schock sent him some footage, and Becker agreed to edit Circo. "He was a great collaborator," says Schock. "Mark understood the poetry and poignancy that I was after in this story and how to tease it out of the footage I shot and craft it into the film we now have."
Becker edited with the Final Cut Pro system, starting after Schock had completed photography (although he did go back to Mexico for a couple of pick-up shots). Before Becker came on board, Schock had spent almost nine months editing a fundraising trailer. "The process was hard," he recalls. "It's a film that has to balance a lot of characters and a lot of the storytelling is visual. Some films are more driven by a story so it doesn't matter how it looks. This was a little different project so it took longer to get to that point of satisfaction." Having Becker--who had successfully made and sold his own film--was a big help. "There are many hats you have to wear to get your film out into the world, and he was also a great source for me, helping me navigate the whole system in getting the film out there," says Schock.
Getting the popular group Calexico to create the soundtrack was another piece of serendipity. When they were editing, Becker dropped Calexico's songs as temp music. "Mark got a CD at Sundance where he premiered Romantico," recalls Schock. "I had temp love. We tried orchestral music and it didn't sound right. We needed something where you can hear individual instruments. Their music really fit and they have the Mexico influence."
Schock reached out to Calexico. "I was nervous, but I sent them a rough cut with their music as temp music, and asked if they would consider doing an original score for this film," he says. "It took awhile for them to answer, but then I got a call that they loved the film and wanted to do it. We didn't have a lot of money and they were generous with their time and effort. It was one of the nicer relationships with this film. We have a continued relationship and they've released a soundtrack of the film."
With the film finished, Schock began to make the rounds of the festival circuit, premiering the film in the U.S. at the Los Angeles Film Festival and in Europe at the BFI London Film Festival.
The Mexican premiere of Circo took place at the Morelia International Film Festival. "The festival did a wonderful thing and brought the whole Ponce family in," recalls Schock. "They had an outdoor screening in the central plaza with 800 people showing up. The family got a standing ovation from the audience and felt a lot of the love I'd felt for them on the festival circuit. People declared their appreciation for their hard work and they really had the star treatment."
The documentary also just played at the Guadalajara International Film Festival, with the Ponce family again in attendance. "Early in the film, Tino says one day the circus will make it to the big city," says Schock. "The circus haven't, but they have, and they feel the pleasure of that."
As for seeing their family squabbles on the big screen, and revealing such personal details as Tino's illiteracy, both Tino and Ivonne, the two main characters, separately pulled Schock aside to tell him he got the story right. "Hearing that from both of them made me believe that I had, in some way," says Schock. "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."
First Run Features is distributing Circo, which has been transferred to film and will enjoy a limited U.S. release, largely at Landmark Theatres across this country. In Canada, the film will be distributed by KinoSmith, an art house distributor, and will also have a theatrical and DVD release in the U.K. with Network Releasing. On May 27, in Tucson, the film will play along with a Calexico concert. Since Circo was largely funded by ITVS, it will also be shown on Independent Lens in the 2011/2012 seasons.
Schock is mulling over what his next project will be, but he is certain about one thing: he will be behind the camera. "I will always be behind the camera," he says. "You're filming people who aren't used to being filmed, so you have intimacy when you don't have a crew. What I'm seeing as I'm directing are one and the same. It's the greatest pleasure being behind the lens."
Premieres on April 1 at the IFC Center in New York City and Union Theatre in Milwaukee.
April 8 - Nuart Theater in Los Angeles
April 15 - Landmark Lumiere in San Francisco and Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, CA