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Circus performers’ lives turned upside down

The bittersweet complexities of freedom emerge in Sky Neal’s documentary about human trafficking

27 April, 2018 — By Jane Clinton

A scene from Even When I Fall. Photo: Tom Swindell

THE silk is taut, then suddenly it unfurls and with it falls the performer with measure and grace – almost as if in slow motion. In the background is the stunning landscape of Nepal.

The performer, Sheetal, is a member of the country’s first ever circus. But this is only a tiny part of the story.

For Circus Kathmandu is made up of people, men and women, who had been trafficked to perform in circuses. Their return to life in Nepal, through the work of among others an NGO, while initially welcome, left many of these highly-skilled performers at a loss.

Some felt great resentment towards their families, whom they barely knew. It was the families, they felt, who had abandoned them to traffickers.

Ironically many miss the circus and admit they were happier there. Despite the privations, it was a home of sorts.

It is from a need to perform and recapture this sense of self and belonging that Circus Kathmandu was born.

A film of this extraordinary story, Even When I Fall, has just been released and through it we see the dramatic release of Saraswoti from a circus in India. We follow her during her time in a rehabilitation centre and then see the often awkward, brutally honest exchanges with her family.

Saraswoti and Sheetal shared their experiences

Saraswoti is one of the two main protagonists in the film, the other is Sheetal. Both have given unparalleled access to their experience to co-directors Sky Neal and Kate McLarnon over the seven years of filming.

“It was epic,” says Sky of the unfolding story. “When we started we had no idea it would become a seven-year film. They go from being children to becoming women. It is also a coming-of-age story. In the end the time it took to make it became a strength of the film.”

Sky, who trained as an aerialist, had been in Nepal acting as a circus consultant when the idea of the film came about.

“I was aware of the trafficking and I found it devastating that this was happening,” says Sky.

It is estimated that some 10,000 women and chil­dren are trafficked from Nepal to India every year, thus making it one of the biggest slave traf­ficking routes in the world.

When the opportunity came to accompany an NGO on the raid to release Saraswoti, Sky initially went along and filmed the event.

It soon became clear that these courageous people’s story deserved a wider audience.

In those first few weeks after the raid Sky spent a lot of time with Saraswoti and they were able to communicate through their shared love of the circus. “I have no doubt that having a circus back­ground helped,” explains Sky, who lives in Islington.

It would prove hugely important in some of the more difficult moments when exchanges with and about her family would be almost unbearably frank.

“We were very upfront about all the filming and it was very collaborative,” says Sky. She believes that the filming may well have helped the two protagonists tackle their issues with their families.

“They were proud to see their story, I know Saraswoti was happy to share it with her sons.”

Sky Neal, co-director of Even When I Fall

The counterpoint to the tense moments in the film are the circus perform­ances which are joyous and deeply moving. They go global flying out to perform in Dubai and to the Glastonbury Festival. Their excitement at travelling to Australia in 2015, however, is short-lived when they hear a huge earthquake has hit Nepal. On their return once again they turn to their skills and bring the circus to communities to help rebuild lives and bring some light relief amid the sorrow.

We see their outreach work going into villages warning against traffick­ing and educating families and children through performance and talks.

It is striking just how much Saraswoti changes through the course of the film. At the beginning, fresh from her release, she appears taciturn and withdrawn, but she develops into one of the circus’s most vocal advocates – in particular for the importance of education.

Her activism comes from her own lack of schooling and education. She was taken to the circus aged eight, at 14 she married the circus owner’s son and at just 15 she had twins (she would go on to have another son). “My name is Saraswoti: the goddess of knowledge, but I cannot read a single letter,” she says wistfully during the film.

Even When I Fall is the result of three friends, Sky, Kate and the pro­ducer Elhum Shakerifar who met while studying visual anthropology at the University of Goldsmiths. While they all have their separate projects, they also collaborate.

And even though the film is finished, they are still raising awareness of trafficking, ethical migration and ethical recruitment and have secured a grant from Comic Relief to continue this work and that of the circus.

“The film is finished but the work is not over,” says Sky. “We just feel so privileged to have been able to share these incredible people’s stories.”

Think resilience, courage, dignity and community and you are some way to under­standing the essence of this very special film.

And Saraswoti? As well as continuing with her circus and outreach work, she achieved her wish: she can now read and write.

Even When I Fall is out now at cinemas for more information go to: www.evenwhenifall.com/screenings

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