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'Acrobat': A Trapeze Artist Lives with Paralysis

Fabrice is sitting on Alex's shoulders, looking at Matias and smiling. Photo credit: Hold Up Films

For Acrobat, Fabrice Champion describes what it's like to be paralyzed and what he remembers about the trapeze. "One can't quit acrobatics easily. It's a gift to be able to fly," he says.


Director: Olivier Meyrou
Cast: Fabrice Champion
Rated: NR
Studio: ITVS
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-07-15 (Global Voices)

If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.

--Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

"This is the central problem of paralysis. How does one manage with all that one cannot do?" Fabrice Champion joined the circus when he was eight years old and by 20, he was a star with Les Arts Sauts. His life changed in 2004, when he collided with another acrobat in mid-air.

For Acrobat, Fabrice describes what it's like to be paralyzed and what he remembers about the trapeze. "One can't quit acrobatics easily. It's a gift to be able to fly," he says, "It's about control, risk, and being fantastically related to your body. It fills you up." As he speaks, you watch him in the distance, the camera waiting at the bottom of a hill as his wheelchair rolls down, distant, bumping along pavement and patches of snow. The shot is lonely and long, the wheelchair far away, the sky white. It's hard to imagine an image that tells you less about being "fantastically related to your body."

And yet, this is what Acrobat does tell you, again and again. It does this by means that are impressionistic and allusive, densely corporeal, deeply emotional. Such multiple, complicated layers make sense for a film about an acrobat paralyzed from the waist down, a man so invested in his body and aware of it, and yet, so suddenly removed from it, so unable to feel it. Olivier Meyrou's documentary -- which premiered on Global Voices Sunday and is available on PBS video starting 16 July -- is an exhilarating and also sobering collaboration between subject and filmmaker, showing and telling, a series of glimpses more than an ongoing narrative.

An early scene offers an unseen woman's voice over close shots of Fabrice's pale white chest or arm Her words suggest what you might see, what he might feel. "It's hard to define how I felt the first time I saw you," she says, "An entire part of your life was unreachable, I felt there was a ghost behind you." The scene cuts to a shadow of a trapeze artist, dark against a green circus tent. The metaphor is literal too. Cut to Fabrice at a hospital in Moscow: the camera peers up at the doctor reading x-rays, the hard sound of the paper flapping familiar and unsettling. Cut to Fabrice, who has more story to add. "It's important," he says, "I didn’t fall to the floor." After the midair collision, he explains, he fell into the net. The camera cuts to a trapeze artist, or more precisely, his shadow, dark against a green circus tent. "I remember something cold and distant, loneliness," he says in voiceover. "There was a moment when I said to myself, 'I don't want to remain like this, I don’t want to remain like this.'"

And so Fabrice works at the Dikoul Centre with weights and therapists, keeps track of his progress, visits with technicians. Developed by a paralyzed former trapeze artist who, after seven years of exercises of his own invention, was able to walk again, the rehabilitation method offers daily and longterm goals. Each morning, Fabrice rises from bed, pulling himself to a sitting position, lifting his legs into his chair, making his way to the bathroom, where he disposes of his diaper and perches on the tub rim, scrubbing his thighs and back. "In acrobatics," he explains, "One says that one is 'lost': it means that one doesn’t know the top from the bottom, whether one is climbing or falling. No, one knows when one is falling, I guess." As a trapeze artist, "I learned to trust my body and instincts."

As you watch Fabrice struggle to lift himself, to pull on his pants, to steer the chair, you might contemplate the brutality of that body's betrayal, its loss of instinct. Where actors or dancers also take risks, he muses, when they fail, they don’t crash. This means acrobats live with a sense of urgency, of mortality, of time passing, as well as what Fabrice calls a "mythological aspect." Like warriors, acrobats expose themselves to danger. "Except," he adds, "We do not kill and we only conquer the hearts of the people around us. It's more peaceful, but you do have this urgency."

Fabrice tells this story to acrobats he trains at the National Circus School in Châlons-en-Champagne. Here he teaches young athletes, helps them to see in themselves what he does. "You have an intensity in your eyes," he tells Matias. "Find out what's beyond that, ask how can I open myself even more." The younger man looks over at Fabrice, the camera tight on his face. He nods, maybe smiles, looks encouraged, then glances toward his tumbling partner, Alex, as if to wonder whether he's hearing this too.

The young acrobats tumble and flip, bend and climb. And when they ascend to the trapeze, they fly. Fabrice looks up, smiling. Their bodies are muscular and taut, his legs are limp. The scene cuts to a close-up of Fabrice, apart, water running over him. Maybe cleansing, maybe refreshing, maybe drowning. His eyes open and his voice sounds. He can live with his paralysis, he says. And again, he speaks in the third person: "Once one accepted the nature of one's territory, one can adapt to it. I have this to work with." He does. And if he can't exactly bring you along with him, if the film can only show surfaces and gestures, it does so in frames that are careful, lyrical, painful.

Fabrice is not lost so much as he is searching. He died in December 2011, but here, in Acrobat, he remains alive. he uses the film as the film shows him, making his way from one turn in his story to another. The transitions are not sequential but oblique, as the film imagines the experience of managing "all that one cannot do" by doing what one can.


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