Director: Alexandra Lipsitz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Growing up in Chicago has given me a great many advantages. I’ve had access to some of the world’s best cultural and scientific institutions, a very ethnically diverse population that exposed me to other languages and cultures, and many clubs and political organizations that bring like-minded people together to work actively for the causes in which they believe.
For all that, one thing I missed out on during my formative years was a trip to the circus. Perhaps as a result, I’ve long had a fascination with this seemingly archaic institution that persists to this day. Therefore, I was eager to attend the world premiere of Circus Kids, a documentary by Alexandra Lipsitz whose maiden directorial outing, Air Guitar Nation (2006), has a boatload of fans. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, and I got more than I bargained for.
Jessica Hentoff is a former circus performer who runs the St. Louis Arches, a youth circus group that has performed with a number of professional circuses in the United States. As she puts it, she is the biological mother of three circus kids—Ellianna, Keaton, and Kellin—and the circus mother of 13 members of the Arches. Lipsitz lets a number of these kids introduce themselves, focusing her camera on their still forms, going to their homes, and letting them talk a little about themselves. We’re not terribly surprised when meeting Iking Bateman, a black teenager from a rough neighborhood whose mother is dead and whose father is incarcerated. We expect programs like youth circus to reach out to “at-risk” kids. It is perhaps a bit more surprising to meet middle-class, college-bound Matthew Viverito, who never found a sport he liked until he discovered circus. Both Iking and Matthew are very talented tumblers, and reflect the diversity of the St. Louis metropolitan region that is caught in microcosm in the Arches troupe.
Hentoff hopes to bring social change, a kid at a time, to the world by building fellowship through circus. Thus, it is not surprising that when Rabbi Mark Rosenstein proposed a cultural exchange to Hentoff, she decided to make it happen. Rosenstein started the Galilee Circus following rioting in the Galilee region of Israel in 2002 to bring Arab and Jewish youth together, and he thought it would help move his mission forward to broaden it to include circus youth from other parts of the world. The film deals primarily with the Arches’ trip to Israel and how the mixing of the two troupes changed the lives of all those involved.
The logistics of getting the kids packed and on the plane starts the journey, and we get to experience their jetlag on landing in Tel Aviv and being whisked immediately onto their coach to meet the Galilee Circus members and travel to a kibbutz that will be their first stop on the tour. The groups are disparate in skills, with the Israeli kids more adept at juggling and stilt walking, and the Arches at acrobatics. Trying to put the skill sets together, while dealing with a language barrier and the Arches’ unfamiliarity with and dislike of the food and kibbutz living, is a challenge. Their first joint show, assembled in a day and a half, is sloppy and full of flubs. This bumpy start is exacerbated when two of the Arches get into a nasty fight in which the “n” word is uttered, right in front of the Israeli kids. There are some real concerns about whether the experiment will be a dismal failure.
However, over the two weeks the two circuses travel and perform together, the hoped-for cultural understanding starts to take hold. Ellianna, who seems to be complaining about everything, and Riana, a troubled girl with learning disabilities, watch and then join in when a group of Arab girls at the home of Galilee Circus kids, Manar and Manal, belly dance to some records. Riana especially is enthralled by the way they move, their coin-clad hip belts shimmering and sounding as they dance.
There isn’t much the Arches don’t experience. They sleep in a bedouin tent in the desert (not a happy experience), they ride a camel, they attend a birthday party with a cake, candles, and a song that is not “Happy Birthday.” The feasts they are offered for everyday meals leave the Arches bewildered.
A visit to Jerusalem is a profound experience for the Arches. Matthew talks excitedly about actually being at the Dome on the Mount, which he had only seen in his history book, “and the picture I took is better than the one in my history book!” Michel, whose parents initially were worried about him traveling to a war zone (his mother, not knowing where Israel is, says, “Israel better be in St. Louis!”) is thrilled about being at the Western Wall and inserting a wish into a crack. “I’m so happy!” he enthuses.
When the tour comes to a close, the combined circus is running like a well-oiled machine. Manal is excited that she learned how to do tricks on a stationary trapeze, Keaton got his first kiss from Israeli beauty Shirell, and everyone is crying at the airport.
The film concentrates on the growing bonds that form between the Arches and Galilee troupe members, but there are some disturbing moments. Ali, one of the Arab performers, is unhappy with the way the girls are behaving. “They should be beaten,” he says. Two of the male Arches also talk about punching girls who they imagine are their girlfriends. In the Q&A, we learn about an incident in which one of the Arab kids was thrown out of a shop after being accused of stealing—a bit of this was included in the trailer for the film, but not in the final movie. Keaton said in the Q&A that the presence of the Arches seemed to have broken down barriers between the Arab and Jewish members of the Galilee Circus, and Jessica Hentoff said that change like they hope to bring is a drop in the bucket, but that she expected those drops to accumulate.
I hope she’s right. Some changes have come to some parts of the world with persistent, peaceful efforts such as this one. By planting the idea that the Arches were peace ambassadors to Israel, Hentoff opened their minds to new possibilities, and the continued cultural exchange—both groups continue to travel between each other’s countries—will keep those minds open. I’d like to see some work done on bringing peace and equality not only to Arabs in Israel, but to women in both countries. Circus Kids is a movie that is determined to plant hope. While I think it would have benefited from revealing some of its sharper edges, it is an entertaining and revealing film that deserves a wide audience. l
Circus Kids will screen Sunday, October 10, 1:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
Previous CIFF coverage
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The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)
Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)
The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)