Saturday, January 20, 2018

Slamdance ’18: Circus Ecuador

They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Apparently, it also runs through the hardscrabble Wishi community in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Two novice filmmakers decided to document the construction of a much-needed school for the village, but instead, they witnessed chaos, confusion, and moments of sheer terror. Ashley Bishop & Jim Brassard are still not sure what exactly went down, but it was definitely a mess judging from the footage they assembled into the unintentionally gonzo doc, Circus Ecuador (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

Admittedly, Elizabeth Gray was a tireless fundraiser around Albany, convincing the entire community to invest in the Wishi Project. Bishop and Brassard were so impressed, they dropped out of grad school to chronicle her efforts, even though the did not speak Spanish (or Shuar, the indigenous language spoken in the Wishi community). Unfortunately, as soon as they arrived in-country, her leadership started to flag. After one meeting with some self-appointed community leaders, the filmmakers believed they were in grave danger of being abducted—and it was all downhill from there.

While Brassard and Bishop were fearing for their lives, Gray seemed content to play Lady Bountiful with her favorites in the village (not that you could really call it a village). Just when they think the project will finally have some adult supervision with the arrival of Greg Sheldon from Gray’s fiscal sponsor, he starts talking about UFOs and ancient civilizations. However, they start to get some lowdown from “Canada” and “CIA Chuck,” two local “business partners” suspected of representing the CSIS and CIA, respectively, at least until Chuck starts changing his story. Regardless, everyone seems to agree there is gold in the nearby river.

According to their voice-overs, it took Bishop and Brassard quite a bit of time to figure out what they should do with their footage. Obviously, this would not be the sunny, feel-good film they were envisioning. What they ended up with is frankly mind-blowing, combining the unvarnished expose of the human cost of unintended consequences found in Mark Grieco’s A River Below with a staggering lack of self-awareness, worthy of the docu-mocker, Kung Fu Elliot.

If nothing else, Circus acts as a withering corrective to the idea we can simply shower money on a struggling community and everything will be fine. There is no substitute for proper due diligence. For instance, we eventually start to question whether Wishi is really even a community, when evidence surfaces it might just be a semi-organized group of squatters, hoping to steal a claim on lawfully titled land.

By the time Bishop and Brassard run out of footage, we can only shake our heads at the massive folly of it all. Yet, the biggest punchline isn’t even in the film. According to the University of Albany’s website, Gray is now Assistant Dean of the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security, and Cybersecurity. You have to wonder what the board will think of this film. At least Brassard and Bishop salvaged a film that holds great value, albeit of a cautionary variety. Very highly recommended for general audiences, Circus Ecuador screens again this Monday (1/22), as part of this year’s Slamdance.