Starring: The Carson & Barnes Circus family
Since its inception in 1782 in Paris, France, the circus has entertained audiences for hundreds of years; combining feats of strength, displays of acrobatic agility, trained animal acts, and death-defying stunts. And, while things have modernised, the circus remains mostly the same. However, circuses hit their peak some time ago, and now, with the rise of video games, the cinema, and controversy surrounding the use and housing of animals, they often struggle to make ends meet.
It’s here that Seth and Barbera Camillo lay the focus of their documentary film The Circus: Down the Road; detailing the circus’ (in)ability to compete in the modern world and less about the ethical concerns of its practices. Now, this is problematic in a way, as parts of the film could be seen as defending the keeping of wild animals. We see trained Tigers and Elephants being used to perform tricks and hear from animal trainers about their process. And although the film-makers never explicitly advocate for the keeping of these animals for entertainment purposes, this will undoubtedly upset some viewers. However, from a film-making standpoint, this makes absolute sense and helps keep the emphasis on the behind-the-scenes workings and the circus as a family unit. And, having travelled with the Carson & Barnes Circus (now America’s largest) for 36-years, the Camillo’s are certainly well placed to do this.
Their insight into circus life is without equal. It provides a personal and intimate account of the relationships that form the very foundation of one of the oldest entertainment institutions in the world. Indeed, what is clear from the start is that these people are a close-knit, proud, and resilient group, who work bloody hard to earn their living. And, aside from a short narrated introduction, Seth Camillo takes a hands-off approach throughout the rest of the film; allowing the performers themselves to do the talking. The film consists of interviews (these are conducted in a relaxed and informal manner) with a variety of different performers, trainers, and families connected with the circus (some of which go back several generations) and intersperses them with footage of acts being performed.
The home video style camerawork, footage, and interviews only lend to the movie’s intimacy. And while the picture quality can sometimes be lacking, it’s adequate enough and rarely poses a problem. More importantly, though, the editing and sound are always spot-on, with no awkward cutaways (whether too soon or too late) and interview audio being crisp and clear and easily understandable.
All-in-all, I feel like The Circus: Down the Road achieves what it sets out to do. It steers away from dealing with any controversy the circus has, in the past, become embroiled in. It’s a safe choice for a film-maker to make, although an argument could be made that maybe it should have taken a stand, one way or another. If you’re not a fan of the circus, this isn’t likely to change your mind. But what it will hopefully do, as it has with me, is to bring a newfound appreciation for the people who live and breathe the circus life and the tireless work that goes into making it what it is.