Circus Politics: Frank van den Engel & Masja Novikova’s Between Heaven and Earth

Politics come and go. Dictators rise and fall. But the circus is eternal.

Circus Politics: Frank van den Engel & Masja Novikova’s Between Heaven and Earth
Photo: Zeppers Film & TV

Tursan, a gentlemen with a white beard and gold teeth, smiles into the camera and says, “For my circus, I need peace.” Peace has been hard to come by in Central Asia, especially since the crack-up of the Soviet Union, and Tursan says, “A circus should steer clear of politics.” The circus is a major cultural tradition in this part of the world, but in the perilous 1990s it was not always possible for a circus to “steer clear of politics.” Between Heaven and Earth (Tussen hemel en aarde), a lovely, lyrical documentary directed by Frank van den Engel and Masja Novikova, looks at two interconnected circus families in Uzbekistan, examining how they have been impacted by dictatorship (both Russian and Uzbek) and what it means for the circus.

Achat and Tursan have been friends and circus performers since they were little boys. Their paths have diverged in recent years due to differing philosophies about politics. The dictatorship in Uzbekistan, which rose in the wake of Communism’s downfall, has persecuted both of them for their political affiliations. Achat spent two years in prison, where he was tortured. “That is something we do not talk about,” says Achat. Achat and Tursan were members of ERK, the democratic party, for which they were both arrested. Tursan, since the death of his son (Achat claims that Tursan’s son was murdered, as retaliation for his father’s political activities), has backed out of politics completely. He focuses on his family and on the circus. Achat, however, continues to organize, heading up a human rights organization, which provides legal aid to those in need. His family, his friends, plead with him to be cautious, to not make waves, to not call attention to himself. Tursan refuses. There is now a rift, a painful rift, between these two friends.

Between Heaven and Earth mixes interviews (featuring Achat, Tursan and others) with absolutely incredible footage of their circus performances, all set against the mountainous Uzbekistan landscape. The circuses, for the most part, take place in dusty public squares. This is not Cirque du Soleil, with big-budget production values and a soundtrack. This is circus at its most pure, its most raw. These people are amazing. We see a strong man pull a car with his teeth. We see gravity-defying tumbling acts. There are shots of the tightrope-walker from below, as she runs (yes, runs) across the tightrope with a 3 year old boy standing on her shoulders, the blazing blue sky arching above them in lieu of a circus tent.

The tightrope walker is one of the most haunting characters in the film. She is a young woman, beautiful, and she says, in her interview, that all of her girlfriends are now focusing on getting married and having children. She thinks maybe she should start thinking about those things too. However, her work fills up all of the space in her mind. There’s a loneliness to her, an isolation, but what else can she do? In the dusty public squares of Uzbek villages, people cluster together, escaping the roughness of their lives for an hour or so by staring silently up at the blue sky and watching a young woman running above them on a wire. She takes on an almost mythical aspect in these scenes. She is no longer a mere individual. She is her tradition. She is the circus of Central Asia. A floating figure, hovering above politics, above poverty, excellent at what she does, not giving in to despair, not accepting a second-hand life, her focus of laser-point intensity, she represents the best in us all.

I was riveted by the film from beginning to end. It is a rare look at a world still haunted by the old paths of the Silk Road, by Tamurlane, by Genghis Khan, by Stalin. Politics come and go. Dictators rise and fall. But the circus is eternal. Between Heaven and Earth is not to be missed.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O’Malley blogs about film, literature, photography, and life at The Sheila Variations. Her writing has appeared in Roger Ebert, Film Comment, The New York Times, and other outlets.

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