Way up in the Canadian Arctic, where Guillaume Ittukssarjuat Saladin spent much of his youth before becoming a professional circus artist, there was an epidemic of suicide among the residents. He visited Chicago in December with his best friend Yamoussa to explain: For a young person to leave their town and see the world, they either had to save $3000 (nearly impossible due to the economy), injure themselves enough to be airlifted to the hospital, or join the army. Yamoussa and Guillaume were in Chicago speaking to a group of young circus artists, some refugees, most from humble households, about their new documentary that showed how circus changed the lives of the young people in their own home towns.
After getting his college degree and completing a four-year tour with Cirque Eloize, Guillaume decided to return to his roots and help the youth of Igloolik with some skills, namely circus related. Through the simple play and skill-building activities of circus a few of those benefits included goal setting, purpose driven learning, self-esteem and physical fitness. The circus group in this town of 1500 people is called ArtCirq. Guillaume never guessed that the work he did would eventually lead to artistic collaborations with musicians, visits from circus performers from around the world, an opening performance for the Olympics, with ArtCirq members traveling the world to perform. Ther eventual result is the documentary that took seven years to make, Circus Without Borders.
Thanks to the work of the Pulitzer Center and the vision of Linda Matchan,the producer, and Susan Gray, the director, the premier of the film was screened in early December at CircEsteem, a circus school in Chicago focused on youth development in a community with a large refugee population. The film was well received by a crowd of parents, local circus performers and eager-faced youth who saw in the documentary a connection with their world.
It also began across the ocean, in the vastly different climate of Guinea in Africa, with Yamoussa Bangoura leading a troupe of eager young men from a poverty-stricken town in the art of acrobatics, combining it with the already strong culture of music and dance to create a high energy circus that drew all the local kids. His optimism, talent and charisma made him attractive to the Cirque Eloize talent scouts from Montreal who chose him to represent their circus, and it is still the secret to his success in his home town today. He is a natural leader who counsels his students how to avoid the temptations of success; his passion to give back to his community is contagious.
Guillaume and Yamoussa are best friends who met during their work with Cirque Eloize, and their friendship has fueled their passion to take their knowledge and opportunities back to their home communities and to collaborate on a grand scale. One of the most beautiful moments in the film is when the young people from Igloolik visit the students in Yamoussa’s town in Guinea and bond by sharing their skills and music. But we follow the companies much further than that, through further suicides, through intense auditions that Yamoussa has groomed his top students for that wrench them out of a life of poverty, through the loss of loved ones and the triumph of tours and income sent home to a grateful community. Although circus does not solve all of their problems, the participants in the film are keenly aware of the opportunities it affords them, and when they are not aware, Yamoussa and Guillame are happy to explain it to them. When a group of performers from Kalabante are chosen to come to Montreal and work with Cavalia (where they still work to this day) we experience their awe as they solve the riddle of light switches and house keys for the first time, and as Yamoussa tells them “You are very lucky. Not even the people of this country have the same opportunity you have now.”
After the screening, Yamoussa came to the stage with his instrument, a Kora, and played a tune with Lucy Little (an instructor at CircEsteem) on violin, while the CircEsteem students did a demonstration of their juggling, acrobatic and German Wheel skills. Guillaume was there to join in with the acrobatics, and they both stayed to answer questions from the audience about their villages and their work.
In Circus Without Borders, it becomes apparent that although the two circuses share a vision, their methods and results differ. The Kalabante acrobats are amazing at their work, flipping and leaping so rapidly across unforgiving surfaces that they are simply blurs. The atmosphere of the circus school (which we see evolving during the course of the film as they make the first bricks for it) is one of intense competition and the simple joy of purpose. Yamoussa’s plan is to mentor the youth and find them opportunities for employment as professionals, so that they can help improve their country by bringing in their income to their communities and continue to pass on their skills to the next generation. Yamoussa explained to us after the premier that in Guinea, suicide was very uncommon, because the focus there is on one’s struggle to survive the poverty by succeeding. Perhaps due to their geographical isolation and the need for community to survive, the ArtCirq performers in Canada focus more on collaboration. Guillaume’s plan is to restore the urge to survive and cut the suicide rate by lighting a fire under his students. He does that by giving them an outlet to reconnect with their roots via the storytelling and musical aspects of their culture, and by to giving them something to compare their life to with opportunities to travel and understand the world beyond their town. He hopes they will want to return to the stark beauty of their home to pass on that wisdom.
After this inspiring film, filled with beautiful imagery of Cavalia circus, beachscapes and snowscapes, acrobatics, powerful music and the hopes and dreams of young people, you walk away feeling grateful for the opportunities in your own life and amazed by the power of the human spirit to accomplish so much through bonding and collaboration with circus.
Circus Without Borders is currently premiering in select cities around the US and Canada and will soon be released for purchase. To learn more about the film, visit Circus Without Borders.