Kelly J Richardson teases meaning/metaphor from the lives of at-risk circus performers in Brazil.

Richardson Wraps Circus ‘Net’

Michael Fox June 7, 2011

Making a movie, some would say, is the ultimate high-wire act. The tense rigors of production and post, however, pale next to the challenges that many kids face navigating their way through life. Kelly J Richardson was sufficiently impressed and inspired by a group of children she met in Brazil that she took up filmmaking. In the final stages of mixing the resulting one-hour documentary, Without A Net [sic], the novice filmmaker is primed for the next tightrope—the festival whirl.

After graduating from U.C. Berkeley in the mid-2000s, Richardson took a trip to Brazil to unwind. A gymnast, dancer and athlete, she’d taken some classes a few years before with a circus in Madrid. Now, in Bahia, she gravitated to a circus that worked with adolescents in tough neighborhoods.

“There was a program that encouraged at-risk kids in the area,” Richardson recalls. “If they could face the risks in the circus, they could translate that experience into facing the risks in their own lives. If they learn to juggle more objects than they have hands, maybe that’s helpful in learning how to juggle their realities: not having enough food, no safe place to live, no father at home, siblings in the drug trade or in jail or dead. I got the idea I wanted to make a movie about the similarities between the physical risks of circus and the seemingly insurmountable risks of growing up in poverty in Brazil.”

This concept of “social circus” has spread worldwide, Richardson discovered. UNICEF and Cirque du Soleil, among other entities, fund programs. Brazil is one of the leaders of the movement. That’s the big picture; for Richardson, the street-level experience of rehearsing and performing alongside the Bahian children was life altering.

“I was struck by how their art mirrored their lives in such a vibrant way,” she says. “As we got to know each other, trained in the same place, did our push-ups next to each other, laughed together and sweated together, they began sharing their stories with me and I began to think more and more that those stories would be great material for a film.”

In 2006, Richardson came back to the U.S., applied for a Fulbright grant and started learning how to make films. She took classes at BAVC, Film Arts Foundation, U.C. Berkeley and City College, volunteered on other people’s sets and starting making her own experimental shorts. “I became a filmmaker,” she says, “to make this particular film.”

Returning to Brazil with her gear and grant, intending to return to the program where she knew everybody, Richardson encountered a major setback.

“They had a hole in their tent; a performer [had been] killed by the police; they lost some of their funding,” she recounts. “I had to search for another circus.”

Rio de Janeiro beckoned, where Richardson was compelled to start from scratch with a new company.

“Nobody knew me and nobody knew I was a circus performer,” she says. “I came with a fancy camera and funding and it took a long time to break down the wall for the performers to trust me. [Even though] I was a circus performer, and I wasn’t coming in without any knowledge of what I was talking about or what they were doing.”

Richardson spent nine months or so with the circus in Rio, bonding with her potential subjects and filming them. She wanted the project to be somewhat collaborative, so she’d send her camera home with them so they could film their circumstances. .

“The film is much more about the performers than the program,” Richardson says. “ It’s a character-driven documentary, and through the characters we get to learn about the program. It’s much more a tribute to these young, courageous Brazilians who try to change their lives by going through the circus program.”

Richardson, a FilmHaouse resident in 2010, has her sights on premiering Without A Net on the fall festival circuit. To follow her progress, visit Regardless of what happens, she’ll always be a big-top evangelist.

“I think circus training, for anyone but [especially] for poor kids, is really beneficial,” she declares. “Think how good it is for cognitive development to learn how to juggle. Walking a tightrope and keeping your balance when it’s a very tiny line, and all odds say you’re going to fall off, is an extremely valuable lesson for life. Setting a goal and achieving it. These are all very satisfying experiences to have as a kid.”

Notes from the Underground

Yoav Potash’s Crime After Crime opens July 1 at the IFC Center in New York and July 8 at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in Los Angeles. The Bay Area opening is slated for August 5, following a couple of dates in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. … Wayne Wang’s latest, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, opens July 15 in New York.

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