Guantanamo Bay, located on the edges of Cuba, is a controversial military prison with a scandalous history of detainee torture. But nearby there is a naval base with military personnel and their families. And in 2006, a small merry band of performers from the Vamphear Circus went through FBI, CIA, Homeland and any other government acronym clearances to travel to this politically charged place to entertain the troops and their kids.
The five days of this trip is captured in the 30-minute documentary, Guantanamo Circus, which screened last night at Westwood's Crest Theatre. In the film, we follow Christina Linhardt, the opera-singing clown (and co-director of the short); Hillel, the balloon man, and his assistant (and wife) Leticia; Philip Solomon, the fire-breather and juggler; Brandy Wirtz, the incredibly athletic aerialist; and Count Smokula (aka Robert “Smokey” Miles), the ringmaster and accordionist. After two long days of flights, they exit the plane and walk into a sort-of 1950s Pleasantville with its glaring absence of consumerism and upholding of “prudish” (according to one circus performer) morality. The area, which one soldier claims to be “a great place to raise your kids,” is an odd contradiction with its heavenly, perfect-for-snorkeling waters juxtaposed against the high security prison.
When Linhardt first said yes to the gig, she thought it would be for the troops and didn't realize that they would be entertaining the children as well. Her sexy little number where she sings an aria while nude as Count Smokula paints her body was nixed. Same with Wirtz's grinding act. An admiral's wife nearly fainted when she saw Wirtz making sparks fly off her metal bra and crotch plate during dress rehearsal and emphatically vetoed that one as well.
But the children loved the show. “The energy of the kids was phenomenal,” Count Smokula recalls, and we catch a glimpse of this as a sea of youngsters rush onto the stage uninvited to dance and sing along with his “See Ya Later, Al-Qaeda” jingle — a song he wrote just for this trip. But underneath laughter and fun were darker, more serious tones as Linhardt talks about how one cheerful young female soldier, fresh out of boot camp, spends a week “behind the wire” — in the prison — and comes out dipped in misery and exhaustion. This female soldier confides that she was hit with a “cocktail number five” — a disgusting combination of piss, shit, cum, snot and spit.
Though the documentary itself remains mostly bipartisan and harmless, the Q&A that followed the screening yesterday briefly ventured into tense waters. Hillel, a Jewish man who lost half his family in the Holocaust, can find sympathy for the detainees who are forced into these concentration camps, calling the situation “a tragedy.” Meanwhile, veteran Al Bowman, the founder of the Los Angeles Music Awards, isn't too happy that the money that once was set aside to bring over entertainment groups like the Vamphear Circus is now being spent on bringing the detainees' families over to visit.
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But that debate was quickly defused as Linhardt reminded us that as entertainers, their job is to bring “a blast of positivity.” In the same way that doctors take the Hippocratic oath to save the lives of all — regardless of who they are or what they may have done — she and the others have taken a similar oath. And truly, the film is at its strongest when it focuses on the performance and less on the politics.
Guantanamo Circus will receive the honor of Best Short Documentary at the Hollywood F.A.M.E. Awards, also founded by Bowman, on Thursday, Nov. 14 at the Avalon Theater.
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