Thursday, 29 September 2011

Review: Invisible Circus, No Dress Rehearsal

Invisible Circus: No Dress Rehearsal is a feature length documentary by Bristol film-maker Naomi Smyth, about the Invisible Circus, who started in a Bristol squat in 2006. By 2009, they had moved on to throw a series of massive, legendary show/parties with the complete acquiescence of the authorities. I know they were massive and legendary: I was there.

I saw this film earlier this year, when I mainly went to check that there was no footage of me, falling out of my corset. (It's ok, you're safe, and so am I!) What I hadn't expected was that the film really delivers a gripping narrative, albeit one told quite slowly.

The Invisible Circus start in a squat (about to be converted into yuppie flats) and put on a show. They get evicted. So far, so very countercultural. But then they get ideas above their station, and astonishingly, start to make them happen. They move into another squat (the film doesn't stint on the squalor and filth left by the previous occupants) get evicted, then a small, disused police station, on lease from the council. Then they make an agreement with a property developer, get access to a Victorian ex-Cathedral, and start turning themselves into a proper organisation, with all the bureaucracy that entails.

Finally, they agree a lease on a whole city centre block, the gothic Old Police and Fire Station, and start putting on huge immersive circus shows which transform the entire block into a strange, twisted, neo-Victorian fairground. In one of the final scenes of the film, the camera zooms down on hundreds of faces, as aerialistes bounce from ropes between buildings, and fireworks explode off the balconies. I am, I think, one of those faces, staring up, in a sort of childlike ooh of wonder. It really was wondrous, and one thing the film, perhaps, fails to capture was the sheer atmosphere conjured up in this weird world.

There are a number of really interesting things about this film. First, all the contradictions that are thrown up by moving a 'countercultural' project into legal status. Second, the internal struggles of the group as they attempt to resolve anarchist, co-operative politics with the 'leadership' of charismatic frontman Doug Francis. As dictators go, Francis seems rather sweet, and the film's funniest and most moving moment is when listings mag Venue manages to reduce him to tears, by giving an award that was meant for the company, to him alone.

Naomi Smyth
Weirdly, it is also a fascinating picture of a phenomenon, as assorted property developers bang on about how people will always want upmarket flats. The film goes as far as 2009, so doesn't actually mention that most of the property firms who so generously allowed this bunch of talented scruffballs to access their property have since gone bust. The Invisible Circus, incidentally, are in rude health, which is quite funny. 

Naomi Smyth filmed the Invisible Circus, as part of the crew, over a period of four years. She has never made a feature film before, and can be very proud of what she has turned out. The film is fascinating and thought-provoking in so many ways. It is not without its contradictions, principally between the act of archiving what went on and making a running narrative. It could probably do with being ten minutes shorter, but still it's a fascinating watch.

The best thing about this film is that it is a genuine narrative, peopled by a vibrant array of characters, and like any proper story has a happy ending, via a lot of struggle on the way. It is also a moment in time, caught, like a fly in amber, the world before the boom went bust, and its counterweight, those who were locked out but who wouldn't go away. If you get a chance to see it, do, you'll find yourself thinking about it for a long time after.

Invisible Circus: No Dress Rehearsal is distributed by Future Artists. For info on screenings in Newcastle, Manchester, and London click here, or for showings at Bristol's Tobacco Factory, here. It will also be showing in London at Channel 4 on the 16th Nov.

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