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Åsa Sjöström • Director of The Last Circus Princess

“Circus families always stick together”


- Cineuropa talked to photographer and first-time director Åsa Sjöström, who is showing The Last Circus Princess at the Göteborg Film Festival

Åsa Sjöström  • Director of The Last Circus Princess

In The Last Circus Princess [+see also:
interview: Åsa Sjöström
film profile
, shown in the Göteborg Film Festival’s Nordic Documentary Competition, Åsa Sjöström gives the limelight to the women behind the Cirkus Rhodin, one of the last surviving circuses in Sweden, run by the seventh generation of performers who just won’t quit.

Cineuropa: What made you want to show something that has become rather unpopular? It’s fashionable to be against circus, rather than mourn its untimely demise.
Åsa Sjöström:
I try not to focus too much on this idea of circus being all about animal abuse. My characters talk about it, but I decided to show them instead, and the way they treat the animals. The animals actually seem to be having a great time, as everyone who sees this film will surely attest.

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When I was a child, my parents would take me to the circus. I love horses and still do horseback riding, and at that time, I didn’t really think about whether the animals were treated well or badly. My film is not a political opinion piece about where I stand, but it’s one of the reasons why the circus, as a culture, is dying. There are good and bad people everywhere. You never get a chance to listen to the ones behind it all, and here, it’s run by women ­– it’s a matriarchal world, which is pretty unusual. When you are born into a certain culture that’s slowly disappearing, how do you survive? There are only two circuses left in Sweden, so it was important to give them a voice.

Even though Simona, the titular heroine, is still very young, she seems to be living in the past, talking about her mother’s or her grandmother’s glory days as if they were her own.
A few decades ago, the circus used to be huge. People would dress up, and entire cities would come to see it. Now, they have to travel to small towns where there is nothing else to do. Many of those that still want to continue, also those without animals, are struggling. I would say that people in the countryside are still more familiar with it. In Stockholm, kids probably don’t even know what a traditional circus is! But with Cirkus Rhodin, last year they started their season in Malmö, and I think they will do it again. Maybe it’s a new trend for parents like me, for example we just want our kids to look up from their iPad or iPhone for once and see something in real life.

At one point, they say they are not allowed to put posters up, so they can’t let people know the circus is coming. Why show the least exciting part of it all, all the paperwork and requests for permissions?
To them, it’s a normal job. As a cultural worker, it’s something I can sympathise with and recognise, although in my case, at least I don’t have to deal with people who sometimes hate what I’m doing. I was fascinated by how they were trying to survive. These women were born into this, and they are fighters. They don’t know anything else – they want to continue this legacy at all costs, even as it becomes impossible. As long as there is an audience of some kind, they will keep on going.

So did you. You made a road movie!
I was driving in my own car, and sometimes I would sleep in it, too. Then I rented a van, so I could get some proper sleep [laughs]. I usually work as a still photographer, and this is my first documentary, so of course I couldn’t stay with them all the time. I still had to pay the bills. Whenever I was gone, they would be calling me, saying: “You are missing so much!” I learnt a lot while making this film. I have always been interested in storytelling, and when you have time to work on a project, the result is more honest, I guess. You start feeling other people’s emotions. They really wanted me to show their life to the world, and how hard it is when you can’t even – yes – put up a poster saying you are in town.

Do you think this particular lifestyle, and not being bound to one household, for example, gave these women more freedom?
They are very independent, and they only trust themselves. Diana, Simona’s mother, runs the circus, [her partner] Irene takes care of everything else that needs to be done, and Simona is the star. These circus families, they always stick together. I was fascinated by the impact of these women, also because I just like to show women, in everything I do. And yes, I think they feel like they have freedom.

The way they see men is very practical – like when Simona says her mother keeps asking when she will find a boyfriend… to help out with the trucks.
We talked about it a lot. Sometimes, when we were on the road, I felt like Simona was so young and sometimes felt so lonely. She ended up meeting a guy, and at first, I didn’t want to show it. I thought it would be too “cute”. But we needed that, or otherwise she would seem so vulnerable. It made her stronger, somehow.

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