Illustration by Gemma Milly
I’m reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen at the moment. It’s a book about the train travelling circus, set in prohibition era America. The story flits from the 1930s to the present day. Whilst highlighting the protagonist’s age and the unavoidable changes to his body, mind and soul, it also mutters under its breath of the stark changes within the circus world. The book depicts the ‘old’ circus as full of hardship – pure blood, sweat and tears stuff. The modern circuses are seen as refined pieces of machinery, in a factory made of satin. Is the magic lost within this? A touch of the romanticism? The circus’s underground beginnings would never have seen itself hovering pleasantly next to the Sherif’s house, yet now they are as above board as the Queen… aren’t they? I digress, the circus is glorious! Of course it is! BUT, there within the drama, a snatch of a risk, a missed heartbeat, a creative explosion, that’s the kind of circus I want to see.
There is one circus, The Invisible Circus, who hold all and more of the magic that comes with the old and new; from the hard graft and creativity, to the luxury/despairs of liberation. I’ve been fascinated with them since I moved to Bristol, where they’re based. The group squat in various disused buildings, clean them up and use the spaces for creative expression; for The Invisible Circus. I was lucky enough to go to a screening of Naomi Smyth’s documentary on The Invisible Circus, which involved her following them for several years, becoming part of the group. She saw them change, inspire, shrink and grow – from squatters to ‘legit’ workers. Ultimately becoming something huge and recognised as beautiful and vital for a city’s inner beating, expression. It’s truly inspiring from a whole host of angles; those that influence our daily lives and the future of truly free art. And free people. DO try and watch the film if you can. Here follows the trailer to the film and a fascinating interview with Naomi Smyth.
What initially interested you about the Invisible Circus?
They were squatting a derelict 4-storey garage round the corner from my house. It was pretty manky but they had transformed parts of it with red draping and lighting and created this dark Victoriana aesthetic around the shows there. There was such creative energy about them and a real determination to create beauty out of waste and nothingness with their bare hands.
What made you want to film a documentary such as this; and over such a long period?
If I had known it would take four years I would never have begun! I just felt that this was an intriguing assortment of people who were going somewhere together, and they didn’t all feel the same way about where that was or should be. I thought that was interesting and there must be a story in it! It took about a year to really be sure what the thread was. I did a lot of sitting around with the camera running, wondering why I was there. When I did find the thread it took four years before I really felt the story had developed enough to be finished. CarnyVille is the Masterpiece of the circus so far, and the show that has involved the biggest part of Bristol’s creative community so I’m very glad I ended it with that. People still tell me there is more to film. They’re right, but I’m not doing it!
Is it a social, economic and political statement/commentary?
The circus in the film is a group of very passionate creative people who start out underground, slightly flaky and disorganised and get successful, professional and popular. That process is socially interesting, and also political. It is tied into the way our economy and the power structures in our society work, but also the ones in our heads. Tough choices come up as they move further into dealing with the hierarchies of capitalism. They have a leader in Doug too, which is obvious from the outside- but for self proclaimed anarchists which many of them are, that’s a very uncomfortable idea. At the same time they are doing it all for no money, just for the love of making art together, for the sake of beauty and inspiration. That underpins the whole mission and really saves it from the traps along the way.
FOR THE FULL ARTICLE ON AMELIA’S MAGAZINE, CLICK HERE