Things go from bad to downright weird in Jim Brassard and Ashley Bishop’s debut feature documentary, the chronicle of an ill-fated charity project launched in the jungles of Ecuador. Haphazardly organized, erratically shot and inexpertly edited, Circus Ecuador presents a nearly nonstop litany of filmmaking missteps. Chances for further exposure beyond Slamdance look slim at best.
It’s not just that the filmmaking is so unprofessional, but that the principal subjects profiled offer little of interest or inherent drama. The Amazon region of Ecuador would seem to present a myriad of near-mythic storylines reflecting the legacy of native cultures and Western colonization, but the filmmakers’ approach is so literal that they can only seem to see what’s right in front of them. This isn’t one of those projects that starts off promisingly and then devolves into disorganization. In this case, things are bewilderingly chaotic from the get-go.
A hopeless mess.
It all begins when college film student Brassard meets community activist Elizabeth Gray in Albany, New York, where she’s raising money to build a school in an indigenous community in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Intrigued at the opportunity to document construction, she hires Brassard as the project videographer. His girlfriend, Bishop, a self-described “amateur anthropologist,” soon joins the team and the group jets to Quito at the end of 2011. After meeting with Ramon Vargas and Alfonso Wajuyata from the indigenous Shuar tribal village of Wishi, it becomes apparent that the locals’ concept for construction is far more ambitious than what Gray has planned or budgeted. Disconcertingly disoriented, she quickly begins losing managerial control of the project even before the group arrives in Wishi.
Gray requests assistance from her colleague Greg Sheldon, who halfheartedly takes charge once they arrive in Wishi, where the local community greets the Americans with mixed signals. Although some tribal members are happy to see Gray return after her previous stint in the village, others get caught up in Vargas and Wajuyata’s runaway vision for the project. Before construction on the school actually begins, planning gets bogged down in cultural miscommunication, local rivalries and the conflicting agendas of various interlopers. Even those disruptions aren’t as distracting as rampant rumors circulating in Wishi concerning gold smuggling, alien visitations and even tourist murders that threaten to throw the project into total disarray.
Brassard and Bishop seem so bewildered by the blur of events they’re witnessing that they can only get a grip on the situation by slowing the pace down to provide near-daily updates on developments. This incremental narrative style principally serves to interminably rehash the misunderstandings and rivalries unproductively pulling the project in various different directions.
Not speaking any Spanish, Bishop and Brassard end up sidelined, unless they can get one of the Americans to agree to an interview or find a translator to assist with approaching the Shuar. Frustratingly, they seem to consistently miss out on key events (at one point even losing access to their camera equipment), leaving them narrating developments over drawn-out sequences of B-roll footage or even still photos. Other scenes are so poorly recorded with subpar audio that they should probably be subtitled, but play on regardless, only creating further confusion, which is compounded by repeated failures to identify key project personnel. Camera techniques are basic at best, with frequent framing and focus issues readily apparent.
At a shamelessly undisciplined 134-minute runtime, it’s surprising that Brassard and Bishop’s film took five years to assemble, particularly since they quickly abandoned the Wishi documentary less than a month after arriving in Ecuador. Revisiting the footage during the editorial process appears to have provided little perspective, however, leading to an indulgently slapdash presentation.
If the filmmakers had chosen to document the planning missteps and production mistakes they encountered during the shoot, they might actually have something useful to share, but in its current form, Circus Ecuador comes across as a hopeless mess.
Directors-writers-producers-directors of photography-editors: Ashley Bishop, Jim Brassard
Venue: Slamdance Film Festival (Documentary Feature Film Competition)