THE GREATEST SHOWS ON EARTH was programmed alongside Joshua Oppenheimer's stunning but tough THE LOOK OF SILENCE for the opening night of Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015. For most of us wondering up from The Showroom to Sheffield's magnificent City Hall, we were expecting something of a light-hearted palate cleanser. But we were wrong. While there is a lot to excite and entertain in THE GREATEST SHOWS ON EARTH, this skilfully edited film of the history of vaudeville and circuses over time and geography was actually quite a provocative and depressing watch. Because in amongst the clown-acts and acrobats was exploitation - of women, children, animals, black people. And the repetition of these acts, wonderfully highlighted by director Benedikt Elringsson's mash-up of acts over generations, is in itself depressing. Rather than being an act of unity among cultures it felt like we had discovered the lowest common denominator of humanity. What is it about us as humans that when we see a lion, we want to prise its jaws open as far as possible and stick our head between them, not only to sure our courage, but actually our mastery over nature? What is it that makes us want to humiliate a great beast of an elephant and make it stand on a stool? The whole thing made for rightfully uncomfortable viewing.
In a way, I think the fact that THE GREATEST SHOWS ON EARTH is uncomfortable viewing makes it a better film. Rather than just a history of a certain type of mass entertainment it becomes a document of our shifting social attitudes toward race, women, children and animals. What was once commonplace seems shocking and it's a good reminder that all of this happened for centuries - arguably since the time of the gladiators - and only finished fairly recently. The other thing that makes this film a must-watch is the fabulous score from Sigur Ros which absolutely works hand-in-glove to build tension in the montage scenes - say just before a human cannonball is fired. If the soundtrack were on release I would buy it immediately.
THE GREATEST SHOWS ON EARTH played Sheffield 2015 and has a running time of 70 minutes.