[17 August 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“This shouldn’t come off as a frivolous little show, where the audience says, ‘Ah, how nice—the poor, black kids at the social project learned to jump.” Junior Perim keeps his baseball cap backwards and his beard scruffy. Director of the circus in Praça Onze, Rio de Janeiro, he believes in his young performers. And as Junior speaks, the camera in Without a Net shows the kids preparing—applying white makeup, adjusting their white unitards as they enter the tent—and also brief shots of nighttime streets, glimpsed through chainlink fencing.
The lives of Junior’s acrobats are hard. Djeferson, currently training on the trapeze, reports, “When I was little, people looked at me and said, ‘That kid is headed for one of two places, prison or the grave.’” He lives with his mother in a crowded shack (“It’s no exaggeration to say I have 30 brothers and sisters,” he says), but he sees a future elsewhere. As you see in Kelly J. Richardson’s outstanding documentary, opening at DocuWeeks 17 August in New York and 24 August in LA, the circus, which Junior established in 2004 in a neighborhood populated by prostitutes and drug dealers, makes this vision possible. “The place doesn’t have much to offer for the locals,” he observes, “So we thought it would be a good spot for us, so we invaded.”
This premise, that hope might be found and nurtured in unexpected places, is shared by The Anderson Monarchs, which opens at DocuWeeks on 10 August in Los Angeles and 17 August in New York. Like Without a Net, Eugene Martin’s film follows a group of young people finding their ways, in this case, a girls’ soccer team. Named for the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in South Philadelphia, the team has been coached since 1998 by Walter Stewart, former lawyer and current elementary school teacher.
Shot over three years, this terrific film follows Walter and two players, Jlon and Kahlaa (both age 11 when the project begins), to tell an uplifting story of hard work and dedication that’s also complicated by everyday choices and compromises. Asked to describe the “most special thing” about the team, Jlon pauses to consider her answer. “Our bond as a team,” she says, “We also had courage, because other teams looked down on us because we’re all African American and they didn’t expect us to play that well and win so many championships and tournaments.” As she speaks, she bends her body, at once restless and thoughtful, sitting in her pink bedroom by the window, surrounded by pillows and her numerous soccer trophies.
The film bears out Jlon’s analysis, tracking the players’ ups and downs. During practices, the veterans help to assimilate newbies. “When you’re new,” Coach explains, “It’s your job to try and fit in with the people who’ve been here for a long time. When you’ve been here for a long time and someone’s new, it’s your job to make them feel welcome and teach them our ways.” Those ways have developed over time, and, as Stewart admits, some of this has been tough, for him especially. After his divorce, he lost contact with his own children, and yes, he says, noting that his interviewer is “asking a lot of tough questions,” he adds, “It definitely is a substitute, you feel like you wanna make up for it, but you’re not gonna make up for it, because your holidays are still spent here, you know, by yourself.”
As hard as they’ve plainly been, Stewart’s losses have led him to the Anderson Monarchs, an opportunity he takes seriously. “I think Coach also inspires us as parents, because he does take an interest in every child that walks up here,” says one mother, “He never turns anybody away, it doesn’t matter if they can afford to pay for it or not.” Here you see the girls sorting through a room full of shoes and shirts he’s collected, all sizes. “He’s constantly digging into his own pocket to feed the girls, to clothe the girls,” observes another parent. “He treats them as if they’re his own kids.”
They’re also students, a point the film shows as they discuss the legacy of Marian Anderson (“We’re from the neighborhood where she grew up”), including the Daughters of the American Revolution’s refusal to let her sing in Constitution Hall in 1939, as well as her performance for President Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1957, and her tour of India and the Far East as a goodwill ambassador (reporting on Gandhi, whom Anderson cited as a model, one girls says, “He’d starve himself, everybody got upset that he was starving himself”). A visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in DC inspires them too, as does a meeting with Michelle Obama.
Inspiration comes from closer to home as well. The girls’ parents attend their practices and games, encouraging competition and teamwork. “I try to instill that belief in theirself and they be independent and they be just good people, like, in general, but also have something,” says Kahlaa’s mother, “Morals, of course, but belief in yourself and stand up for something.” The team provides “Some kind of sisterhood,” says a mother who prefers the Anderson Monarchs to a team in the suburbs. “Why not be where you’re needed, rather than somewhere else say, a more elite club or what have you?” she asks.
Mothers and players all credit Coach Walt with making the team possible: he makes sure they have uniforms and shoes, as well as organized practices—even if these are sometimes interrupted. “If it’s not the shooting or the guns,” one mom observes during a practice in a park at twilight, “Every time something happens. We can’t run from the field, this is only place we have to practice.” Coach peers into the waning light, as cops gather. ““It’s a concern and it’s something none of our opponents have to deal with,” he sighs, “That’s always been an irony, or, I’m not sure irony’s the right word, the tragedy, perhaps, of trying to do things in the inner city, you know, where it’s difficult.”
It is difficult, but the team provides the girls with diversion and structure, as well as a way to imagine what can come next. Just so, the circus provides the kids in Praça Onze with alternatives. Some of the kids seem born for it: contortionists Bárbara and Rayana can twist their bodies into impossible positions (self-reflective, Bárbara reveals that she’s got a “complicated” relationship with Rayana: “Look how flexible she is,” she says, “I started to hate Rayana because she took my place”) and Platini is a fearless young acrobat, tumbling and flipping and juggling, even as he’s being interviewed. His mother advises, “Work, study, and stay on the right path, and you’ll be a somebody in life,” seeing the circus as a potential right path, out of the slums.
Without a Net (2011)
Without a Net makes clear—in especially beautiful compositions—the contrast between the circus and the streets, cluttered with trash and dead trucks. It also makes clear how difficult it is to escape poverty: as encouraging as the children’s mothers all sound, they’re pictured where they live, in tiny spaces, cooking for many mouths, exhausted from working multiple jobs for decades. At the same time, not everyone can perform in the circus: Ziquinho works maintenance, though he once wanted, he says, “to learn to juggle or learn aerials.” Now, he says, he watches.
His commitment matches that of most of the performers (Bárbara confesses that it took her a little time: “When I first got here, I thought Junior was a bully”). She’s dropped out of school to be part of the circus, though not all the kids make this choice. “It’s cool and gratifying,” she says, and acknowledges at least some of the risks. “I landed on my head once, when Djeferson forgot to catch me,” she remembers, noting that she almost passed out from the pain. “The consequences,” she adds, “come later.” As the film reveals, some consequences are life-changing, and some of the kids don’t escape the slums. Still, they have a chance, and that can be enough.