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We all love a great romance. Star crossed lovers, facing the world together, Princes and Princesses riding off into the sunset and living happily ever after. Merrylu Casselly and Patrick Berdino appear, at least on the surface, to be living out that fantasy.

Patrick’s grandfather, Benny Berdino, is the patriarch, owner, and director of one of the biggest circuses in Europe: Arena. The devastatingly handsome, arrogant, hot-headed Patrick is barely out of his teens. Nevertheless, he poised to take over as leader of his family’s empire one day. His grandfather grooms him for leadership, teaching him everything there is to know about the business he loves so dearly. It is immediately evident the amount of pressure that rests on Patrick’s shoulders, but he seems eager to one day rise to the challenge.

Merrylu is immensely talented, tough, headstrong and stunningly beautiful. She and her younger brother have been raised in the Arena Circus by their parents, themselves acrobats and artists in the ring. As a spunky and fearless child, she began to learn death-defying stunts from a young age, and developed a rivalry with Patrick. The two are circus royalty, literally referred to as the Prince and Princess. Their parents, who are the best of friends, joke (as parents do) about their children one day falling in love. It seemed very far fetched for a long time: they fought like cats and dogs. But then, one day, it all changed. Young love blossomed, and with it some of the best performances the circus had ever known.

These fascinating families are the subject of Danish director Anders Riis-Hansen’s film THE CIRCUS DYNASTY.

Very early on, Riis-Hansen establishes a captivating style of filmmaking, drawing the live audience in to the magical world of the modern day circus. So too are we drawn – much like the Casselly and Berdino families – into the starry-eyed lovers and their big plans for the future of the dynasty. But soon we feel an ominous tone overtake the story. It cannot be so simple. There is no sunset awaiting the lovers as they ride out of the tent each night. Instead, they must face the real world, real life problems, and the pitfalls that comes with naive young love.

Faced with a bickering couple and a possible 4 year contract to work with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey that would take the Casselly’s to America, the 21 year bond of these two families is strained to the breaking point, and tested in every way imaginable. Circus life is not how you would have imagined, or seen in films before. The cast of characters are almost as captivating as the stunts they perform nightly, and the visual masterpiece created by Riis-Hansen is one that must be celebrated. The Shakespearian story line that plays out between these passionate people is made all the more impactful when you remember that, no matter how fantastical it all may seem, it all actually happened.

 THE CIRCUS DYNASTY plays at Hot Docs 2015 tonight, Saturday April 25th – 6:30pm at The Lightbox. It plays twice again at Isabel Bader Theatre;  on Sunday April 26th – 1pm, and finally on Friday May 1st – 4pm (official website)