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Victoria Film Festival 2011 Interview - "Circo" director Aaron Schock

Circo - At Victoria Film Festival
by Jason Whyte

The following interview took place at last December's Whistler Film Festival. Circo is also playing at the Victoria Film Festival.

“The Ponce family's hardscrabble circus has lived and performed on the back roads of Mexico since the 19th century. But can their way of life survive into the 21st Century? Against the backdrop of Mexico’s collapsing rural economy, the ringmaster must choose between his family tradition and a wife who wants a better life for their family outside the circus.” Director Aaron Schock on the film “Circo” which screens at this year's Victoria Film Festival.

Is this your first film in the Whistler Film Festival? (Or the first film you have) Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to attend the Whistler for the screening?

“Circo” is my first feature film and this will be the Canadian premiere of the film. The film is being released theatrically in Canada by Kinosmith, and I am excited to see how Canadian audiences receive the film. The film had its World Premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and has/will screen in festivals around the world, including the UK, Mexico, Denmark, Sweden, and New Zealand, to name a few. It has been a great run for the film, and we have picked up a few nice awards along the way.

Could you give me a little look into your background and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

I came to documentary filmmaking through a circuitous path. While my professional background was in social policy, and my creative background in documentary photography, a couple of years ago I took a leap of faith and decided to marry the two and follow my real passion: Film. After teaching myself the basics by making a short documentary, I decided to follow through with an idea to make a feature film about rural Mexico. The inspiration was to find a story that would convey the richness and complexity of Mexico’s rural order,

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …”

The earliest memory I have of answering this question was that I wanted to be a writer. But this was before I could read. I suppose that I’ve come around to storytelling, just a different kind.

How did this project come to fruition? If you could, please provide me with a rundown, start to finish, from your involvement.

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. 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.

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, but what I discovered was so far removed from the stereo-type of “circus types.” Instead, I encountered 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. In other words, I found the story that I had been looking for, but just not the one I had expected.

I make films to satisfy my curiosity about the world, and the inspiration to make “Circo” was to examine rural Mexico. Once I found the subject of the traveling circus, questions emerged that I just had to answer. How could this way of life continue for over a century, given the hardships involved? The circus is unlike almost anything else in that it is totally consuming, that there is no separation between your art, work and life (with the one big exception being documentary filmmaking, of course). I was interested in why people continued despite the sacrifices, and how individuals negotiate their individual relationship to this all consuming enterprise.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production?

Probably my biggest challenge was also one of my greatest assets. During production I worked completely alone. There are some very obvious cost savings, but that isn’t the reason I work this way. I do so because I feel that being alone really enables me to achieve the intimacy that I want with my subjects, and it allows me to use all my energies to focus on my relationship with the subjects and not to the crew. Moreover, I come to film from a photography background so for me directing and being behind the camera are really one and the same thing, and can’t imagine relinquishing that role. I am not saying this is the best way to work, but it is the only way I know how. In the whole process of filmmaking, it’s what I love most.

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 be looking over your shoulder, or just need some reassurance you are doing something of value, it can be a challenge when in the field.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

I shot the film alone with the Panasonic DVX-100B, the standard-def camera that most people making documentaries in the field worked with for several years. I actually like it better than some of high-def cameras out there, where images are so shiny…used under the right conditions, it looks like Super 16. I wanted a visual, filmic look for the film, while also needing something light and portable while chasing a circus across Mexico.

Talk a bit about the festival experiences, if any, that you have had with this particular film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings?

The film’s World Premiere launch at the Los Angles Film Festival and International Premiere at the London Film Festival have done so much to advance the film, and have led to several distribution deals. But the most meaningful screening for me was in Mexico at the Morelia Film Festival, where we had the Ponce family, the subjects of the film, in attendance. “Circo” is a very intimate and personal film, and I wanted the family to experience what I had experience in other screenings; love and respect for their tradition and their struggle. We did a huge out-door screening of the film in Morelia’s central plaza before close to a 1000 people, and it was so beautiful – they received a standing ovation, and they were really embraced by an audience of their compatriots. For all of us, it was a very emotional night.

The next day, we all went to the zoo, where the Ponces had heard there was a baby lion for sale that the zoo did not have room for. I had given the Ponces the award money from the Best Documentary award “Circo” received at the Hamptons International Film Fest, which they used to purchase the lion. This may actually be a first…unless Werner Herzog has beaten me to it. They left that day with half the family, and the lion, in the back of their pickup truck.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

Perhaps because cinematography is so crucial to my work, I like very visual filmmakers, both in documentary and in fiction/narrative. In documentary, people like James Longley (“Iraq in Fragments”), Laura Poitras (“The Oath”), and Lixin Fan (“Last Train Home”) are my biggest inspirations, both in their visual language and in their method (working alone or mostly alone and serving as their own cinematographers). Moreover, my eye was trained most by photographers, people like Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson, Josef Koudelka. I have been a bit spoiled by what I have seen; in the field, I would only turn on the camera if I was moved visually.

Please tell me some filmmakers or talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

I’d love to work on an omnibus film, where say 10 documentary filmmakers chose a subject and worked on it separately from 10 different angles, then came together to put the film together. It could be something like revisiting some of the locations where the great documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens filmed in the 20th Century, a project like that. I’d bring together the documentary filmmaker friends I have made while making CIRCO.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

I am not sure, although I believe the good press we have had has helped get commercial interest in the film. I do know that the day after we got a four-star review in Time Out London we sold-out our London Film Festival screenings. And I know that I rely on critics and reviews to form my cultural choices.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

Any of the screens at Cannes. During the festival, of course.

What would you say or do to someone who talks or uses their cell phone during a movie?

Not sure if you can print what I shout when this happens. (Author’s note: Yes, I can. I’ll follow up with you in Whistler.)

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

Self-reliance: You have to be able to do everything because so often you won’t have funds to hire someone. Passion: If you don’t have it, you won’t make your film. It is the fuel you run on.

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

Too many candidates vying for the top, but the film that made me want to be a filmmaker was Truffaut’s 400 Blows. It just hit me in the gut at a very tender age and made me feel intensely what film art could do.

”Circo” screens Sunday, February 6th, 12:15pm at the Odeon.

This is one of the official selections in this year’s Victoria Film Festival lineup. For more information on films screening at this year’s fest, showtimes, updates and other general info, point your browser to

Be sure to follow instant happenings of VFF ’11 on my Twitter account @jasonwhyte, including mini-reviews of films, comments on festival action and even a Tweetphoto or two. #vicfilmfestival is the official hashtag.

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 02/07/11 03:58:56
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