Written by Olivia Patt
18 Sunday 18th September 2011

It’s quite an unusual topic choice – how did you decide to do the project? Had you always known you wanted to make a documentary about a travelling circus?

Actually, I had absolutely no intention of making a film about a travelling Mexico circus, and no more prior interest in circuses than the next person.  Rather, I wanted to go deep into the Mexican countryside and find a story that could communicate both the richness and the complexity of a vast social order in crisis. 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, and the plan changed.

Over the next several days, I got to know the family that had brought this little bit of magic and diversion to this poor farming town. The Ponces had been living and performing on the road continuously since the late 19th century, and what I encountered was 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. I found the story that I had been looking for, but just not the one I had expected.

Do you feel that this is a documentary about a circus, or a family?

It is both of course, but what I think the film achieves is finding the universal in the particular.  The film deals with themes of filial responsibility, with the weight of cultural inheritance, and how tradition can be both a gift and a burden.  One might go into the film thinking “What in the world do I have in common with a travelling Mexican circus?” and come away feeling that, upon reflection, a great deal. What is wonderful about the medium of documentary is that you are able to walk around in someone else’s shoes for an hour or two, and come away with a deep understanding of people you may have hitherto felt that you had little or nothing in common with. For me, this is the most vital role of the medium.

What was it like getting such an intimate glimpse into the world of the Ponces?

The Ponces are wonderful people, and I felt it a privilege to be able to so deeply enter their lives, the world they travel through, and the tradition they inhabit. The access they gave me to their lives was nothing less than a gift, although one that I, like all documentarians, had to earn from my subjects. To them, there is the world of their caravan and the world outside of it, and I felt lucky that I got to film, eat, and sleep within its confines. I also entered intimately into their family life, and became privy to all the dynamics that eventually became the dramatic content of the film. 

There are moments in the film that are quite uncomfortable to watch; for example, when the young girl is being forced to learn backflips and crying. Where there moments that were difficult for you to film?

That moment was the most difficult to film.  Was I capturing child abuse?  Or was this just how all 5-year-old circus children are taught? What’s interesting is that despite all my hand-wringing, audiences often laugh at this scene, perhaps finding humor in her resistance to the training. We actually cut a moment when the grandfather slaps her, as is felt just too gratuitous – and perhaps not fair to her to have immortalized in a film that I hope she’ll otherwise enjoy watching when she grows up. Other than that, I felt comfortable filming, even during tense arguments among the adults at the dinner table.  

Are you still in touch with the family?

All the time. The most moving moment for me with them happened after the film was done. We were invited to have the Mexican premiere at the Morelia International Film Festival, which had organized an outdoor screening of Circo in the central plaza for close to a thousand people. We brought the Ponces to Morelia for the screening, and I think all of us were a little nervous, as it is such an intimate film. When the film ended, the Ponces received a standing ovation, the well-known Mexican actor Diego Luna greeted them on stage, and during the Q&A they received so much love from the audience that a few of the Ponces were in tears. It was an incredibly moving moment for them and for me. They had taken the risk to really open up their story to me, and in this moment I know they felt that it was worth it. We also all went together to the Guadalajara Film Festival, where we won an award. I now get calls from the Ponces telling me of film festivals they researched on the internet to see if we can go – they really love the scene.

You mention in your commentary that you deliberately wanted to move away from documentaries on Mexico that focused on immigration alone – what message are you trying to send with your film?

That’s right, 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.  My hope is that Circo tells both a universal story while allowing the audience to enter into and learn about a specific family, tradition, and country. The Ponce family’s story is really a universal one experienced by millions of Mexicans, for whom a way of life that has sustained them for generations is becoming increasingly unviable, and for whom options are few.  

Find out more about Circo at

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