Every year roughly 10, 000 children are trafficked from Nepal to India. Many of these children end up, strange though it may seem, in a grotesque inversion of the classic childhood dream as performers in the circus. Even When I Fall follows a group, primarily of women, liberated from the circus and somehow liberated by the circus, as they reclaim the extraordinary skills learned in difficult circumstances to elevate themselves and to educate others.
The film was shot over six formative years, and we begin with a nail-biting midnight rescue of one of our key protagonists, Saraswoti: torches flicker and flash over the gaudily painted circus exterior in a disorientating whirlwind, faces appear and disappear into the darkness, voices are heard indistinctly. The young members of the circus troupe are encouraged to gather their clothes as the circus has been closed down, and we are initiated into the complexities of this operation as the children question their liberators, confused and wary. The circus has become their life, their world, and this documentary does well not to gloss over the children’s reluctance to be rescued, or as they see it, to be uprooted once again from what has become their home. Saraswoti is in a particularly complicated situation: having raised herself up somewhat through a marriage to the son of the circus owner, she is now a very young and illiterate widow with three small boys. As the film progresses to charting the days of the survivors in their new home, a refuge shelter, Saraswoti states unequivocally “to be honest, I was happier in the circus”.
The audience is allowed in to this perspective through the use of beautifully shot sequences of the young women performing circus arts, with insightful and personal commentary supplied in voice-over. They are graceful and fluid and incredibly strong: Sheetal, the second key young woman who we follow through the documentary, is filmed performing aerial acrobatics on two lengths of white silks, suspended amongst the trees. She spins and climbs, performing daring drops that caused the cinema audience to catch their breath as she plummets out of frame, her voice-over declaring with a calm steeliness that “one should be courageous”. The film captures the transcendence of physical excellence and skill, the strength and pride that these women draw from being able to perform such remarkable feats. It is a paradoxical thing in their lives, both the poison of their childhood and the panacea for that exact poison, affliction and remedy. We watch children run and backflip off a table in the refuge, knowing that these skills have been learnt in hardship but seeing the release the physical exercise gives them, seeing them momentarily fly above and beyond their past and present difficulties.
It is not only for personal healing that these women and a group of other trafficking survivors go on to form the now world-famous Circus Kathmandu, which performed at Glastonbury in 2014. The group also puts their crowd-drawing skills to good use, gathering people with spectacle to inform and educate against trafficking in Nepal. We follow them as they develop their strategies, and as they begin to include their personal stories in their shows we see a glimpse of the kinds of suffering that these people endured as children. This is not an indulgent, torture documentary, though, and for the most part trafficking and their pasts in the circus are spoken about in matter of fact terms: these young people look forward and outwards, not inwards into the depths of their past, and in so doing they inspire and encourage other people. We see elderly village women tell them to be proud of who they are and what they are doing, that they are not prostitutes (a common assumption in Nepal equates trafficking and the circus with sex work) and they should not be ashamed. In one remarkable scene, we see a young woman get involved in the drama, telling the actor playing a father why he must not sell his daughter abroad. A crowd of women gather to brow-beat and lambast the man, and we see a community united against the lies of the traffickers, against the force that divides families and loses children into a wilderness of cruelty.
The bravery and skill of the performers of Circus Kathmandu cannot be overstated, and the remarkable fact that their work is really changing lives can be seen in this moving and challenging documentary. I would highly encourage everyone to seek out this film, for it is enlightening and inspiring viewing, and a testament to human strength and dignity.