Monthly Archives: June 2015

At Doc/Fest: Circus Dynasty

The show must go on. The old show business truism never fades, and the old promise is as much a cry of resilience as it is an affirmation of the status quo. From the performer gritting their teeth and riding through the pain, to the notion that the traditions of circus must live on, a quiet note of defiance holds across both. In the documentary Circus Dynasty we see this truism first-hand, and are allowed to witness the tireless momentum which carries these performers forward in life, despite the many trials they face in their chosen profession.

CassellyFamilyDocFestCircusDynastyAt the heart of the doc we find the young couple of Patrick Berdino and Merrylu Casseley, the oldest children of two respected circus families working out of Denmark. While Patrick is being lined up to inherit the ringmaster role from his grandfather, Merrylu has made a name for herself as a spectacularly agile animal acrobat. Together they have devised a spectacular act, where Patrick throws Merrylu around himself, while riding on the back of two harnessed horses. The film showcases such staggering acts, and despite their breath-taking qualities, it’s the human drama which shines above all else. Like watching spinning plates in a shooting gallery, as the circus patriarchs admire their love-bird prodigies perform in the ring, beaming at the box-office potential, you just feel the weight of the crash that’s coming. With their families futures unrealistically put on the shoulders of two 19 year olds, you don’t have to be a fortune-teller to know the relationship cannot last.

PatrickBerdinoDocfestCircusDynastyWhile the split happens off camera, countless sparks fly between the two youngsters, and the parents stand by glum faced as the rift slowly starts to pull the families apart. But the show must go on, and so it does. Despite kicks from horses, despite awkward falls off grown elephants, the tears are always held behind the scenes, and ringside they always put on their firmest smiles and their best performances. Only once do the cameras capture the facade crumbling, when in a moment of jealous fury Patrick calmly walks up to Merrylu and starts sniping at her as she sells programmes to the audience. The scene is caught in medium shot, in the hub-bub of the audience, but far away enough to not be caught by the mics. In this closed and mute drama the tensions of their unresolved relationship play out, unguarded and illcitly performed in the sacred space of the ringside. This riveting scene is the death of all lingering romantic notions still held onto by their parents, and marks the start of the film’s final act as the families professionally break from each other.

MerryluCassellyDocfestCircusDynastyThe drama sails extremely close to the winds of soap opera, but as the filmmaker himself stated in the Q&A after the screening, he did everything he could to downplay the story’s melodrama. His care in this regards is thankfully evident in the finished product, as the film avoids caricaturing either villains or victims. The story ends on a departure, and an emotional note for love lost and familial ties broken. The romance the film holds for its young couple, for the history of the circus, and for the future troupe that could have been persists throughout, yet its strength ultimately lies in the emotion it chooses it temper rather than the story it might have chosen to exploit.

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Looking Forward to Doc/Fest 2015

Doc/Fest, it’s been a good while. 8 Years in Sheffield gave me more than ample opportunity to get to know you, heck I even remember when you still went by the more austere name of The Sheffield International Documentary Festival. One year as a volunteer, two years covering it for the Steel Press, and plenty more besides just stuffing myself with brilliant docs. A move away from the city and some absurdly-prohibitively-exhaustingly expensive rail fares have kept me away of late, but that’s not to say I haven’t missed you.

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Then something really quite special gets announced: my old boss is putting on the world premiere of The Greatest Shows on Earth. Which is to say an archive doc built wholly on materials from my archive alma mater. Directed no less by the Icelandic gent behind one of my favourite films of last year, and scored by an Icelandic duo who are also no mean shakes. Well I really liked their first album at least. An all-singing all-dancing multimodal spectacular at Sheffield City Hall you say? Well maybe that rail-fare bullet is just going to have to got bit, because I sure as shit ain’t going to miss that show. When Prof. Vanessa Toulmin decides to put on a show then you do well to clear the schedule and book early. On Sunday she will be repeating her famed inaugral lecture as part of Doc/Fest, and the show of her Twenty Performing Wonders is quite the sight to behold, not least for the chance to see the deeply uncanny Dancing Pig (1907) on the big screen.

DancingPigTerrifiesSheffieldBut hauling myself up to Sheffield for a long weekend of Doc/Fest is an exciting prospect, and while I will only be able to get a whiff of all the festival has to offer, there are a couple of films high on my hit-lists. On the back the Greatest Shows opening gala there runs an invisible strand with a carny theme of sorts, and I’ll be doing everything I can to catch them. A thumbnail sketch of Circus Dynasty paints it as a Romeo and Juliesque story of two young proteges of rival acrobatic clans coming together in a frought romance. How that plays out in a documentary remains to be seen, but I’ll be hoping for some breathtaking feats at the very least. The story of Tyke the Outlaw Elephant also looks like an intriguing one, being the archive re-telling of the American circus elephant that went crazy, killed it’s trainer, before rampaging through a city. The staged execution of colossal caged beasts is a spectacle that goes back to Thomas Edison’s notorious film, and as morbid a draw as the doc’s tragic conclusion is I’ll be interested to see how the story is spun. Maybe a land-based Blackfish is on the horizon?

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As an unimaginative sort I’m also drawn towards the Swedish productions which have been accepted to the festival, and perhaps most noteworthy of those is The Confessions of Thomas Quick, the serial killer that never was. A highly peculiar story of Swedish jurisprudence, Thomas Quick was the boogey-man of my youth: he who killed dozens and was sent down for a long time. Only it turned out Mr Quick’s only sin might have been a hyperactive imagination, being a mentally unstable fellow who for reasons unknown was more than happy to accept the blame for countless crimes he might not have committed. A justice system all to eager to close these cases took his word without following due process, and over time did it actually come out that Mr Quick might have been telling porkie pies. The story was an absolute sensation in Sweden, but struggled to break into the international press, so it will be interesting to see how these documentary makers repackage this story for a new audience.

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Being a huge fan of Hugo Olsson’s Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 I’m more than a little excited for the doc Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. A political movement that was meticulously captured by a terrified media, and tracked by an even more obsessive CIA, the cause was lionized and demonized in inequal measure. Being a subject that could either fall over into fawning imbalance, or into cold detached objectivity, there are plenty of pitfalls for the film to traverse so I’ll be going in with certain trepidation, but holding out hope for what could be a promising doc.

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Beyond that my eye’s been caught by a few odd films and the keywords that leap out about them: The Russian Woodpecker [Chernobyl, subjective], Containment [non-documentary, maybe extra-terrestrials?], Beyond Zero [Bill Morrison, WW1], Best of Enemies [Gore Vidal, pitbull politics], Good Girl [Norwegian, depression, performance art], Scrum [rugby, and rugby], Death of a Gentleman [India, cricket], Addicted to Sheep [sheep, and sheep], and somewhere out there there’s a short doc about Henderson’s Relish. That’s more than twice what I might be able to manage during my two and a half days out of six at the festival, but I’ll be having a crack at trying to blog about as much as I can muster. Sincerely hoping I might stumble across something brilliant that I can share with those who care to read about it. So come on Sheffield Doc/Fest, you’ve had good form in the past, don’t let me down this time.

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