Aaron Schock wanted to make a documentary about Mexico that wasn’t about immigration, for a change. While scouting for subjects in the rural communities off the beaten path, he happened upon a traveling circus, and the rest is, well, Circo. The intimate, pastoral, and lyrical film tells the story of a circus family desperately trying to carry on a centuries-old tradition against difficult odds. Circo premieres Thursday, May 3, 2012 on Independent Lens (check local listings).
What led you to make Circo?
The inspiration for 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 doing field research, a traveling circus came to town. That night I went to the circus. The plan changed.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
I want the audience to walk away with a heightened awareness of the difficult choices faced by rural Mexicans, for whom a way of life that has sustained them for generations in increasingly unviable, and alternatives are few.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Probably my biggest challenge was also one of my greatest assets. During production I worked completely alone, enabling me to achieve the intimacy that I want with my subjects, and combining direction with cinematography to achieve the visual filmmaking I aspire to. But this approach does not come without certain difficulties and liabilities. When you are lost in not knowing what you should film next, or when you need someone to look over your shoulder and offer advice, or when you just need some reassurance you are doing something of value, it can be a challenge when in the field.
How did you gain the trust of the Ponce family?
I believe that from the start, the Ponces were honored to have someone take so much interest in their life and tradition. Of course, when I started, neither the Ponces nor I knew the story would center on a family conflict and a marital crisis. This only emerged later, but at that point the trust and mutual respect had been established, and we made the decision together that this material would make it into the film.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
We had a scene with the circus’ patriarch Don Gilberto negotiating with an official of a small town over the amount that they would charge the circus to set up. While surely adept at shaking people down, the official was no match for Don Gil, and the scene is both telling about small town corruption in Mexico and the adept skills of individuals to circumvent them. It’s also full of Beckett-like humor.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
There is a scene in the film when the Ponce family children take a break from the circus and wander around an empty tourist site, eventually finding their way into an uncompleted mansion. Their poignant response to the experience, witnessing their discovery of Mexico’s keen social inequality in such a naturalistic way, and the sheer surrealistic Last Year in Marienbad-like setting makes it perhaps my favorite.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the Ponces seen it, and if so, what did they think?
Circo has been both a critical and commercial success, finding distribution in several countries and a robust theatrical release here in the US. But the most meaningful screening for me was in Mexico at the Morelia International Film Festival, with the Ponce family in attendance. I wanted the family to experience what I had experienced from audiences in other screenings: love and respect for their tradition and their struggle. We did a outdoor screening of the film in Morelia’s central plaza before about 800 people, and it was so beautiful — they were so warmly embraced by an audience of their compatriots. For all of us, it was a very emotional night.
The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?
For me, first of all it is about being behind the camera while in the field. That immediate moment is where it all begins, capturing a moment that has both aesthetic and symbolic meaning — and the conviction that it is worth all the bother it takes to bring it to the screen.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
For its large and engaged audiences, public television is hands-down the best venue for showcasing independent documentary on television.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Ten other films I would have loved to make.
What are your three favorite films?
In documentary, San Soleil (1983) for its ideas, The Gleaners and I (2000) for its heart, and Rain (1929) for its pure visual storytelling.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Your most precious and important commodity is your passion for your subject and your ideas.
There are no craft services on an indie doc set — what sustains you?
Mexican taquitos: like documentaries, best made with local ingredients, must be spicy, and always messy.