IndieFest: "Circus Rosaire" at the Roxie, Sun 2/15 at 2:45

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[Image courtesy Progressive Productions.]

For nine generations, the Rosaire family has been training animals to perform in the circus. At the height of their fame they were a headline act, performing before royalty and at the White House. But times have changed for the circus, and the Rosaires have had to change with it. It’s no longer a glamorous profession, and attendance is down so much that the three-ring circus is largely a thing of the past. And animal acts in particular are less popular than they used to be, largely because of charges of cruelty levelled against trainers as a whole.

However, such charges could never stick to the Rosaires, who treat their animals with enormous respect and love, and who have made a large collective commitment to their animals: they keep them for life, often for decades beyond their performing years, on the family’s extensive property in Sarasota, Florida. And they even take in animals that other trainers can no longer support.

As a result, the Rosaires are getting squeezed financially, between running a sanctuary for exotic animals on the one hand, and the increasing difficulty of booking shows on the other. Circus Rosaire chronicles five years in the family’s life from an intimate perspective. That’s because the director, Robyn Bliley, and her mother, Sheila Segerson (who served as producer), have been friends of the family for decades, and the Rosaires granted the filmmakers unprecedented access to their lives.

It was a labor of love for Bliley and her husband (and DP) Chad Wilson, whose production company, Progressive Productions, is best known for broadband music videos. “Whenever we had some extra nickels and dimes, we’d go shoot,” Bliley said in an interview this morning, held jointly with Wilson and Segerson. Wilson added: “It was a small budget, but we raised it ourselves, through hard work.” This approach required them to shoot the film in sporadic intervals of several days at a time. In this way, from September 2002 through late 2007, Bliley and Wilson accumulated 350 hours of footage.

During all that time, the Rosaires allowed Bliley and Wilson to chronicle their struggles, something of their private lives, and even some moments of raw grief. They even captured what turned out to be the family patriarch’s last performance after a lifetime in show business. It’s really a remarkable glimpse into a world you’d probably never otherwise see.

And I guarantee that you’ve never before seen a chimpanzee barbecuing vegetarian shish-kabobs and steak — the former for himself, the latter for his human family. “Newton would cook for me,” Segerson said, referring to the same chimp. “He’d make tea, he’d make sandwiches,” on the mere suggestion of his human mother, Pam. “She’d say, ‘Newton, why don’t you make her a sandwich?’ And he’d go to the fridge, get the bread, cheese and ham, put it all together, and bring it to me!” Segerson beamed. “It was the coolest thing.”

Circus Rosaire ends with the family performing together on their property for the first time in fifty years, leaving the viewer wondering how things are going for them now. As it turns out, they have performed together every year since that show, and they are slowly making a transition away from travelling performances to giving educational shows right there on their sanctuary. Because in the end it’s not really about the performances for the Rosaires — it’s really about the well-being of the animals in their care. “They are not regular circus-animal trainers,” Bliley emphasized. “They live, breathe, and even drink their animals — they are family to them, even kids.”

Circus Rosaire plays at the Roxie tomorrow, February 15th, at 2:45 PM. Trailer here.

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