Before the Folklife Festival, I had never been to the circus.
During the first day of shooting, the other camera people had already stationed themselves around the ring, so I slipped backstage to capture footage of performers getting ready. We were under the Big Top, and it was the Opening Ceremony.
It was the wildest cast I had ever seen: men on twenty-foot stilts, fire jugglers, steel drummers, heavily ornamented dancers, and handlers of giant, terrifying props. I watched them stand at the curtains, ready to go out. As each group was announced, they would jet through.
From offstage, I could only hear the fury of the performance. The musicians played full blast. The crowd seemed to be losing its mind. Only during the performers’ entrances could I catch a glimpse.
That wasn’t enough for me. I slipped through and ducked beside the bleachers at the front of the stage. What I saw then was a furious, fiery display of talent, and the most energetic performance I have ever seen. It was a wild exhibition of movement, music, tricks, and colors—a sensory explosion.
I put down the camera. In fact, for the rest of the show, I forgot I was holding it. I just wanted to take it all in. Who knew the circus could be this exciting? I felt like a kid.
Throughout the Festival, I got to witness the sheer skill and bravery of many performers. I also got to learn their stories—their dreams, fears, motivations, passions, and their seemingly boundless energy and dedication to their craft. And hearing their views, I was reminded that as incredible as they are, they are also just like us. Underneath it all, they seemed to be saying that we could live extraordinary lives too.
This video is our vision, Albert’s and mine. We wanted to capture the sheer wonder we felt during our two weeks at the circus. More than visual awe, we had witnessed the humanity of those who live its traditions. It was a big challenge, so it also represents the opportunities, difficulties, and communion that Albert and I experienced, and the late-night creative blocks, narrative frustrations, and pangs of inspiration. This piece was the largest learning experience in my videographer life, and I loved seeing what we could create.
—Hae-Yang Chang, video intern
A couple nights before the Festival started, Hae-Yang and I sat on our carpet, drafting a plan for the film we wanted to create. We didn’t have a title. We didn’t have much idea of how the performances would look. We didn’t even know exactly what the acts would entail, but we had sound effects we could mouth, visuals we could at least anticipate, and the floor of a basement Airbnb to dream it all up on.
So much would be up to improvisation, but we were determined to stay true to our central theme. I had felt the same emotion during each of my four years filming for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival: wonder.
“Wonder Is” is the culmination of seventy-something hours spent behind a lens, and maybe twice that behind the glow of a MacBook screen. Along with a gradient of tan lines, it’s the product of hundreds of gigabytes of moments collected each day on the National Mall. Flying humans, super humans, twisting humans, and giants—I guess summed up, it was created from two weeks spent with wondrous people and a camera.
What drew me toward those you’ll see in the film, act after act, day after day, was simple. Once their show was over and the curtains were drawn, they were just normal people like you and me. They broke for lunch, gossiped backstage, awaited in nervous anticipation for their time in the ring. They were aspiring kids, teens, adults—all ordinary people applying themselves to extraordinary crafts.
What I loved about making this film and this particular summer was that for every moment of hard work and frustration, there were moments of hilarious visual concoctions, creativity, and spirited collaboration. Hae-Yang and I got to experience working hand-in-hand from the very conception of an idea at home to seeing it realized on a screen with all our closest colleagues and supervisors watching right beside us.
Capturing this year’s Circus Arts program was fun and challenging, as it brought a great group of talented performers and passionate creators to the plate. At the end of the day, “Wonder Is” is simply our swing.
—Albert Tong, video producer