Bittersweet: The Carnival Life

5 mins read

The heartland of North America, its agricultural communities and small town dwellers, continues to look forward to yearly visits from carnivals. The whirling rides, sideshow hucksters, freaks and midway operators offer a brand of live entertainment that satisfies audiences in provinces and states across the US and Canada. Carny, a new feature documentary by filmmaker Alison Murray, producer Kathleen M. Smith and photographer Virginia Lee Hunter provides an inside look into this historical pastime and the people who labour to make it a beloved annual event.

The film is the result of a rapport that Hunter and Murray felt immediately when they met at the 1999 Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. “What I was doing with a moving camera,” comments Murray, “Virginia was doing with stills.” Six years later, they hooked up again at the San Francisco Film Festival where Murray was premiering her feature Mouth to Mouth, which stars Ellen Page and is executive produced by Atom Egoyan.

Hunter showed Murray the mock-up of her book Carny: Americana on the Midway. “I was so struck by her work, the photographs and the interviews she had done,” observes Murray. “Virginia asked if I wanted to work with her and make a film based on what she had done photographically. I thought about it for about five minutes and said ‘Ok.’ Here we are two and a half years later and our documentary is finally finished.”

Hunter had been shooting images of carnivals and the people who work at them since the late ’80s. She had traveled with shows from the American South through the Prairies to the West. During that time, she’d learned the slang and habits of carny workers and their bosses. She wanted to capture the “duality of pop culture and subculture that merges in this illusionary fantasy world, this autonomous fun zone of whirling and twirling rides.”

Among the clowns, labourers and touts, Murray and Hunter found characters to embody the carny experience on film. “Many people find in the carnival a place of refuge, where they can seek their own personal redemption amongst all the bright lights. The characters that we followed emulate that,” points out Hunter.

Hairy, the youngest character in the film and the only out lesbian on the show, is a charismatic young woman, full of love, with a hint of tragedy. “She’s like a puppy looking for someone to cuddle her,” says Murray. “She was very trusting and intimate with us. Very articulate as well. She came from a working class kind of trailer home. At one point, I went home with her to see where she’d come from and then did a long bus ride back to the fair. I’d always wondered ‘What’s the key that unlocks this woman? Why is she in the fair? Why is she so desperate for love and attention?’ It’s all to do with her childhood and with her family history, which she reveals to us in a really intimate moment on a long bus ride at night.”

“Each character has come to the carnival for different reasons,” says Hunter, picking up the narrative from Murray. “Dave Varney and his two girlfriends came to seek their fortune. Poochie Love [the only African American profiled] was brought into it at a very early age from his home in Virginia, where the environment was rough. The carnival keeps him in a safe place. Bozo Dave would love nothing more than to get back to the carnival but his devotion to his wife and her illness has kept him from coming back. And you see that in the film. He’s really in a big struggle with it.”

Murray and Hunter shot Carny with Super 8 equipment as well as video and DVD cameras. The film remains true to its intentions, to document the passion and romance involved in working at a contemporary carnival. A Hellhound Production, Carny was made in association with TV Ontario, Channel 4 (UK) and The Sundance Channel (US). The film will have festival screenings in the coming months before its TV broadcast dates.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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