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Behind the Lens: Circo

CreativeCOW presents Behind the Lens: Circo -- Indie Film & Documentary Feature


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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."





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