When I was a kid, I loved going to the circus. When I wasn't fantastizing about growing up to become a nun, I was hanging out on my backyard swingset daydreaming about running away to join the circus. My dad took me to see Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus and the Shriner Circus every single year -- I knew which of the Ringling Brothers tours was the best, and at one point I had a serious crush on the teenage son of a lion tamer. I'd never given much thought to the jobs the circus animal trainers had; in my circus fantasies, I was a trapeze girl, flying through the air with no paralyzing fear of heights.
Circus Rosaire, a documentary by director Robyn Bliley, gives us a backstage pass into the lives of the Rosaires, a family of "circus people." The Rosaires have been court jesters and circus performers for nine generations, but they live a much less glamorous life now than they did in the good old days when circus people were treated like royalty. Back in the good old days for circus folk -- before there was a Hollywood creating stars and starlets for the world to obsess over - they'd come into towns and be feted like celebrities These days, they're much more likely to be working a small-town carnival than performing at the White House, on The Tonight Show, or in a palace.
The family is headed by Derrik Rosaire, Sr., and each of his children specialize in training a different animal. The Rosaires collectively raise and train big cats, bears, chimps, horses and dogs, and consider their animals to be members of the family that they care for for as long as it lives; Pam Rosaire-Zoppe, who trains chimps with her husband Roger, considers her chimps to be her adopted children. Her daughter Dallas, a hoop dancer and dog trainer, was raised in the circus with chimps as her brothers and sisters; Newton, an oprhaned chimp born prematurely, was nursed alongside the then two-month-old Dallas.
Bliley shows us a little of the other side of the circus animal story: animal rights protestors marching with posters at shows. This isn't a film about animal rights or animal activists, though, so she doesn't really delve too deeply into that side of things, choosing instead to let the Rosaires words and actions speak for themselves. The Rosaires don't just train animals to perform, they also run an animal refuge both for their own retired animals, and for animals they rescue from other circuses that don't treat them humanely or from exotic pet owners who got more than they bargained for. It costs the Rosaires roughly $500-700 a day to buy all the food they need to keep their animals well-fed, and they care for their animals before themselves.
The Rosaires are a likeable clan, and it's heartbreaking to watch them struggle with the reality that circus life is not what it used to be; they are a dying breed, and they know it. When the family suffers two tragedies in short order, they decide to pull everyone together to do what they haven't done in decades -- perform with the whole family united together in one big show on their own property, to raise money to support their animal refuge.
Circus Rosaire is a charming, engaging gem of an indie film, and audiences both young and old will find much to like in it. Bliley, who self-financed the film on a small budget and shot over five years, makes the most of limited resources to pull together a delightful indie documentary that captures both the joys and struggles of this family of circus folk.