'Farewell Ferris Wheel': Film Review

Farewell Ferris Wheel Screenshot H 2016
A well-made look at the human side of carnivals.

The wheels churn evenly in this well-made documentary about summer carnivals.

In the good ol' summertime, families flock to the carnival, and, of course, its main attraction: the Ferris wheel. But times are a-changin' and the big wheels are grinding more unevenly in today's “carny” world.

Farewell Ferris Wheel examines the modern-day economics of these traveling road shows. It's not exactly The Stones on world tour, but this entertainment-on-wheels takes a lot of putting up, taking apart and, one more time, heading on down a lonesome road to the next burg.

In this age of polarization and accusation, it's very refreshing to see a documentary that is more in the old-style Flaherty tradition, just letting the pieces and the action fall where they might. 

The thoughtful film, which recently screened at the AFI DOCS Film Festival in Washington, D.C., explores the hard world of the summer carnival. Filmmakers Jamie Sisley and Miguel "M.i.G." Martinez present the story from the workers' point of view as well as the carnival owner's perspective. The doc shows that the carnival owner employs legal Mexican workers to put up and tear down his equipment. He works with a guest worker visa (H-2B) provider which has a pipeline to a poor Mexican town that provides roughly one-third of their workers. Inhabitants of a destitute, impoverished place, the able-bodied men of the town are eager to land seasonal jobs in the U.S. to provide for their families back home.

It is truly back-breaking work, and the conditions are dreadful: long hours, low pay and no security, but they come back year after year. The whole economic situation is akin to a dependent, dysfunctional marriage that neither side, the owner or the workers, wants to give up on.

The circumstances are neither black nor white: The filmmakers could demonize either side, and people would fall in line according to their political beliefs and biases. In this propaganda age, when some media outlets superimpose their own ideologies on stories, selecting and choosing their own “facts," this thoughtful film is a welcome antidote. For that very reason it might alienate the more strident viewers on each side of the political spectrum who might prefer a more doctrinaire “document.” One even detects a sort of creeping political bias in the AFI program's synopsis of the film: “[Farewell Ferris Wheel] focuses on the workers and their struggle as well as on the men who profit from their labor.”

No matter which side of the political spectrum you're on, the film is visually glorious. The erection and tearing down of the giant Ferris wheel, photographed under kaleidoscopic skies and swirls of colorful cloud-scapes, imparts majesty to the sacrifices and struggles behind keeping this show on the road.

Production companies: ITVS, in association with Latino Public Broadcasting and Arizona PBS
Producers-directors-writers: Miguel “M.i.G” Martinez, Jamie Sisley

Not rated, 72 minutes