Viveka Melki Looks at Life After the Big Top in ‘After Circus’

When director Viveka Melki had to choose where to hold the international premiere of After Circus, she knew Sarasota was the right venue. “This film should premiere in the place that it was born, and a place that has given us a lot,” says the Montreal filmmaker.

While many a documentarian has found reason to come to the region to tell some specific story of a circus family, this film looks at the toll the circus takes on its participants and what life looks like after a career in the big top. Speaking with retired and semiretired performers around the world, Melki finds a story arc mirroring that of professional athletes, where human beings pay a physical price risking their lives and livelihoods on a nightly basis just to hear the roar of the crowd.

The story is told through archival footage and new interviews with such personalities as Circus Sarasota co-founder Dolly Jacobs, equestrians Jeanette and Caroline Williams, trapeze artist La Norma Fox and aerialist Thelma Kemp. The film subjects discuss the changes in the circus such as the evolution of dazzling costumes into body paint or of the increasing demands of the general public to see death-defying deeds.

“The world is so much more demanding,” Melki said. “These are real people risking their lives up there and that’s not enough anymore. With circus performers, it’s unbelievable how hard they work and the risks they take.” Melli captured so many accidents on film that many didn’t even make the final cut. She believes film viewers will be surprised how real the risks are, with many performers choosing even at an older age just not to use safety equipment. Some of that is paranoia; most accidents are actually the result of bad rigging instead of performer error.

Melki will take her film to the Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival later this month, and has already shown the film to circus schools in Montreal. The reception there, she said, was incredible. “Montreal is the home of the circus in Canada, and they all said thank you for reminding us where we are from,” Melki said of the screening there. “Here is another world unto itself.”

Of course, the entire nouveau cirque world is one that contrasts significantly with the traditional circus roots of Sarasota, and that topic gets discussed in the film as well. “Norma Fox talks about the loss of people’s names,” Melki said. “When you have an organization like Cirque du Soleil, the grand thing is Cirque du Soleil. It’s not about the performers as much. Something is missing when you don’t know who you are looking at anymore.”

But ultimately, Melki found that circus people feel the rewards of a life bringing entertainment into the big top. “I hope to get to that stage of my life and say I lived a life of passion and did what I love. That maybe it was hard on my body and maybe not a financially easy job to do, but I will know that a desk job would have been awful. All artists who watch this will understand that struggle.”

After Circus opens tonight at the Sarasota Film Festival with a 6:15pm screening at the Regal Hollywood 20, and will be followed by an after-party at Showfolks of Sarasota. The film screens again Sunday at 6:15pm.

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