Yamoussa Bangoura, founder of Kalabante, and Guillaume Saladin, founder of Artcirq (photo by Michele McDonald)

Yamoussa Bangoura, founder of Kalabante, and Guillaume Saladin, founder of Artcirq (photo by Michele McDonald, all images courtesy Northern Lights Production)

The hamlet of Igloolik in far northern Canada and the city of Conakry in West Africa’s Guinea are plagued by distinct issues, one a troubling suicide rate, the other widespread poverty. The film Circus Without Borders brings them together, focusing on two individuals in these places who are encouraging participation in the circus arts as a source of strength.

Members of Artcirq Photo by Michele McDonald

Members of Artcirq (photo by Michele McDonald) (click to enlarge)

The documentary from Northern Light Productions has just been digitally released, having screened at a number of festivals this fall, including the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Directed by Susan Gray and produced by Linda Matchan, a Boston Globe reporter, it chronicles a seven-year journey from the frigid Arctic to the heat of Guinea, and reveals both the power and limits of what circus can do.

Yamoussa Bangoura and Guillaume Saladin, two skilled acrobats, met while performing in Montreal in 2001. “We just discovered we had the same dream, helping kids through circus,” Bangoura says. The filmmakers follow Bangoura to Guinea, where he’s launched Kalabanté to encourage impoverished youth interested in acrobatics, with the potential for employment abroad. In Iglooklik, where the French Canadian Saladin partly grew up with his anthropologist parents, the film looks at Artcirq, which Saladin founded to engage the large population of young indigenous people in their local traditions through circus. He encourages the passing on of storytelling culture, and clowning is accompanied by throat singing; the Artcirq performers balance in formations mimicking the inukshuk stone cairns on surrounding ice and snow. These performances happen with the viewers still able to remember firsthand when Inuit children were sent to missionary schools, where they were separated from their families and not allowed to practice their language.

View of inukshuks (stone cairns) in Igloolik, Nunavut, in Arctic Canada (photo by Michele McDonald)

View of inukshuks (stone cairns) in Igloolik, Nunavut, in Arctic Canada (photo by Michele McDonald)

Members of Kalabante in Conakry, Guinea (photo courtesy of Northern Light Productions)

Members of Kalabante in Conakry, Guinea (photo courtesy Northern Light Productions)

The film has beautiful moments of performance, even when it’s on a trash-strewn beach, as when the young men of Kalabanté audition for the equestrian circus Cavalia, twisting through seemingly impossible somersaults before the waves. Members of Artcirq briefly visit the group in Guinea, but otherwise their stories are distinct. Kalabanté is a way out of poverty, and in that a way out of Guinea for the performers; Artcirq is a way to reconnect with home.

“Yamoussa is trying to bring his guys to find a way to move out of Guinea and perform everywhere they can,” Saladin says. “We had a chance to perform in many different countries, but that made the group realize that Igloolik is beautiful and unique and that’s where we belong.”

One of the founding performers of Artcirq, Solomon Uyarasuk, died in 2012 while in police custody from an apparent suicide, although the cause remains undetermined. It’s a startling moment in the film, especially as seen through the eyes of Saladin, who’s devoted so much of his life, heart, and body to making the circus a ray of hope in a place shrouded by so much death. “I made it clear inside I can save no one, only me. And that’s everyone’s responsibility to take care of their own life,” he concludes. While one person, or even a troupe of people juggling and soaring through the air, can only do so much, there’s a shared spirit of survival in these stories, and the possibility of performing for a more positive future.

Circus Without Borders can be rented or bought online.

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...