Contemporary circus life hasn’t changed much from the previous century. Families still pass down acts from generation to generation, and troupes still rely on sensationalistic attractions like “The Spectacular Globe Of Death” to draw in the rubes, and on sickly sweet refreshments to pad out their take. The troupe featured in Aaron Schock’s documentary Circo is more family-bound and archaic than most. For over 100 years, the Ponce family have been circus folk, scattered into small ensembles that that tour the parts of Mexico where people are often too poor to pay admission. One of those circuses, Gran Circo Mexico, is run by Tino Ponce, who inherited it from his father (who still receives most of the proceeds). Each new generation of Ponce children has grown up learning how to contort their bodies and take care of wild animals, but not to read or write beyond what’s absolutely necessary. So as attendance dwindles, Tino’s wife is pushing him to make some changes, for the sake of their kids and for his own financial future.
Circo isn’t the cheeriest movie. Schock followed the Ponces off and on over a stretch of time in which family members left and came back, because they found it too difficult to transition to settled lives with houses and jobs. And the film focuses mostly on the youngest Ponces, who sometimes dream about going to school and spending their afternoons playing instead of working, but then return to the only life they’ve ever known and get back to developing their own acts. Schock makes it clear that this way of doing business—using each new brood of kids as the primary employees—is unsustainable, and that Tino will never achieve his dream of playing in big cities. He also makes it clear that it’s hard to escape the circus, in part because the family is carrying so much debt—“It’s the load makes the donkey walk,” Tino’s mother sighs—and in part because performing is addictive. And though Circo is pretty bleak, Schock doesn’t skimp on the exotic wonder of a life on the road, surrounded by color and danger. Or as one Ponce says, “This circus is tough and beautiful… it is both.”