Reviews Short Documentary

Circus Movements (2019) – 2.5 stars

Directors: Lukas Berger & Mário Gajo de Carvalho

Writers: Lukas Berger & Mário Gajo de Carvalho

Running time: 15mins

Time appears to be speeding up, as human history approaches some kind of cataclysmic main event. But while the West is understandably preoccupied with war in Europe, this acceleration of atrocities is seeing many more horrific catastrophes occur, which do not make UK evening newsfeeds.

Lukas Berger and Mário Gajo de Carvalho’s short documentary Circus Movements was actually made on location in Ethiopia sometime in 2019 – but in political terms, it feels like it might as well have been a century ago. At the time, Ethiopia’s newly elected leader, Abiy Ahmed was being feted as an African Tony Blair, and had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the long-running war with Eritrea. And now?

Ahmed’s move to destroy the autonomy of the country’s Tigray region in 2021 led to vast swathes of Ethiopia being racked by genocidal violence and a worsening famine that currently threatens millions of its people. In a sense, Circus Movements comes across as a period piece because of this –conjuring an age of optimism and innocence before the fall. Things cannot, it turns out, Only Get Better.

Directors Lukas Berger and Mário Gajo de Carvalho relied on a simple formula. They worked with a group of local circus acrobats and filmed them performing, in the main, against some of Ethiopia’s stunning natural scenery. Interspliced with the performance footage are National Geographic style local colour shots – the rock hewn churches of Lalibela and some of the more outré modern architecture of Addis add to the mix.

The filmmakers provide us with five different performances which are given a soundtrack backing by recordings from Malian and Ethiopian musicians. Your reviewer is not a circus acrobatics aficionado, so this is very much a person-in-the-street-take; but I got bored with all but one of the performances. The young women with hula hoops had a certain joie de vivre that delighted, but the act was nothing special. In contrast, there is a strangely shot scene with an acrobat doing their stuff in a hoop hanging from a tree. Filmed from some distance away, we see the whole tree, but this means we do not focus on the physicality of the acrobat’s movements – and it all becomes somewhat pointless.

An even more bizarre take is a lake shore scene filmed from a single camera position. We are shown two acrobats balancing some sort of umbrellas on their hands and feet. The acrobats are competent, but it is a quite inelegant routine. Gradually our eyes wander, and we notice, what appears to be, a young man swimming and then washing his clothes. Eventually, three cows enter from screen right and plod behind the acrobats and have a long cooling drink from the water of the lake.

The question, I presume the filmmakers are asking of us here, is whether we are more interested in the cows and the swimmer than the circus performers. I have to say your reviewer prioritised the cows – the fascination for me being their wild, scrawny appearance in contrast to the intricately bred beasts of my native countryside, whose vast bulk exudes the promise of an abundance of meat and dairy products. Or as Irish farmers would have it – the finest cow to shit on a shamrock.

For the final performance, the directors opted for a night-time townscape. We are shown a group of acrobats throwing flaming torches to each other whilst executing intricate acrobatic manoeuvres. The scene is beautifully shot and exquisitely lit. The backdrop is some possibly official building with shuttered windows. With the flaming torches flying, it was easy to travel back in time and imagine that behind the shutters, the Derg, the totalitarian revolutionaries of the 70s, were meeting to plan some episode of Jacobin terror. The atmosphere was helped by the choice of soundtrack – a gritty piece of urban Ethiopian jazz with driving wa-wa and feedback guitar. And yet, the acrobat’s routine is quite bland and seemed to go on for an age and I am afraid your reviewer’s attention went walkabout.

The stand-out acrobatic performance and, indeed, the stand-out sequence of the whole movie is provided by a five-year-old boy, Beniyam Bahailo. We are by a roadside in semi-desert – we know this because in the previous shot we have been helpfully shown a camel grazing. Beniyam’s elder colleague lies with feet up in the air. Beniyam balances on his prone partner then launches himself into the air into a series of ever faster cartwheels which end with him landing perfectly on the colleague’s feet – an extraordinary physical statement and a powerful piece of cinema. I showed the sequence to some young members of my family, aged from 7 to 17 – they were truly spellbound and amazed at the level of artistic achievement from someone so young.

Yet there is something lacking in this kind of presentation. It has something of the freak show, about it: an exhibition of biological rarities – humans who can do strange and difficult things – organised for our entertainment, without any humanising context. The filmmakers’ utilisation of the young acrobats as the movie’s central motif – as the enduring image of a particular African country – left uneasy in particular. Alongside questions of child exploitation – Beniyam, for example, must have to have worked incredibly hard honing his act – I kept wondering whether the directors would have similarly placed young British or American gymnasts performing against a backdrop of, say, the Lake District or Yosemite.

I suppose the filmmakers, who are from Europe, aimed to take a slice of Ethiopian culture that would engage international viewers and prompt them to take a wider interest in Ethiopia’s history and culture. Circus Movements is for the most part competently put together, despite some pretty abrupt and jerky editing, and the filmmakers’ love of the country is evident throughout. The film achieved its object in the case of your reviewer – since watching I have been listening in amazement to the jazz music of Girma Beyenne and Ayube Wube and googling some of the astonishing landscapes on show. However, this is very much Ethiopia as described by visitors – and does not do much to empower local voices telling their own stories.

Berger and de Carvalho are part of a long line of artist and writer outsiders, including such disparate figures as Arthur Rimbaud, Evelyn Waugh, Marcus Garvey, and your reviewer, who have brought their own fantastical preconceptions to the picturing of Ethiopia. What Berger and de Carvalho have given to the world that is unique – is the image of Beniyam’s defiance of gravity – that boy truly can fly. Hopefully, a future submission to IFL will be a film about Ethiopia made by an Ethiopian filmmaker that will not involve circus performers.

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