You’ve seen this type of documentary before; underdogs going against the system, triumphing and failing, where the human spirit faces great adversity. These features can be a little too sweet, or even a little biased – but despite this, that’s kind of their point. They’re about little things, yet they feel big – but only if the feature can take the small, isolated worlds of its subjects and make them universal. So there lies the ultimate challenge for the documentarian. Success differs from film to film; where does Pirates of Salé sit along that spectrum?
Morocco is a place where many of its young people face a black-and-white decision: inherit the same jobs as your families, or try and make it out of the country by working extraordinarily hard at something skilled, in order to get a work visa. One such outlet is The Pirates of Salé, a circus production that rolls into town every couple of years to treat audiences to another world. That world is something which many audition for, and few get into – and we follow a group of adolescents who manage to secure the much sought-after positions, and witness their struggle as they work harder than ever before in their lives. On the outset, Pirates of Salé is about a travelling circus, but it quickly makes it clear that for them, this is life-or-death. By far the film’s most arresting aspects are its subjects; articulate yet sometimes introverted, astonishingly talented but never arrogant, when vaulting over obstacles or elegantly ascending a ribbon hung from the rafters, there are glimpses of youth at its most exuberant, animalistic, and arguably pure. But that’s where the brilliance of the documentary draws a line; perhaps bent by its stretched chronology (taking place over many months) or too reliant on its subjects’ own flair, Pirates of Salé never quite lifts off into the realm of great observational documentary. There’s only so much good your film can be if you only sit back and take it all in.
Its slightly torrid convention aside, it’s still worth a watch for its look at an utterly unique set of circumstances, and the vibrant characters that fill those with life, energy, and daunting levels of passion. And ultimately, it’s an uplifting, feel-good picture, no matter what its flaws are; there’s no putting down these incredible set of people. Even if the dual directors, Rosa Rogers and Merieme Addou, have middling success in translating these wannabe circus performers’ fears, hopes and dreams to the screen, there lingers a sense they’ll go on to do even greater things – Rogers and Addou too. Pirates of Salé may not be perfect, but its’ a bright reminder of the sunrise that follows all the blood, sweat and tears. There’s a reason you’ve seen this type of documentary before, and will do many times more.
Pirates of Salé has its UK premiere tonight (June 19) at the Edinburgh Film Festival.