In the wide-angling lens of Berkeley filmmaker Kelly J. Richardson, four children living amid the gun-slinging drug slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, orbit like celestial satellites in a town circus.
Richardson's debut documentary, "Without A Net," makes its Bay Area premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival on Oct. 6, after Oscar-qualifying screenings in Los Angeles and New York City.
One day before her departure to London and the European premiere, the 30-year-old filmmaker speaks about her freshman venture and life as a circus performer.
"In 2006, after graduating from Cal, I was in Bahia, Brazil, in a summer circus program. I heard about a project for at-risk kids called 'social circus,'" she explains.
Intrigued, Richardson researched the subject, then applied to the Fulbright Foundation for support.
"I'd never even made a film, but because I was an insider, I had a unique perspective," she says.
After one year learning filmmaking and ingratiating herself in a social circus in Rio -- the cultural hub she chose because "kids juggle in the streets there, and they're encouraged to dance, perform, and impress each other with physical stunts" -- Richardson was on the run.
"I spent two months in preproduction, just being involved and being transparent, and 10 months filming. I wanted them to trust, to have mutual understanding, which is the Fulbright mission. I needed to go to their homes, which were in dangerous
Taking a bold, "we determine our own destinies" approach (her favorite line from the film), Richardson follows the unpredictable, perilous lives of Djeferson, a pillowy performer with arms like an angel's; Bárbara, a jaded veteran of the circus; Rayana, contortionist extraordinaire; and 9-year-old Platini, who draws and notices birds everywhere.
The characters are central to the 60-minute film, shot with a Panasonic HVX200 and a cheap, handheld camera given to the kids so they could record without her presence.
"I wanted them to be unbound," Richardson says, "Walking into opening night, Bárbara says, 'This night is going to be (expletive) awesome!' She probably wouldn't have said that if I was there."
Richardson's astounding skill is demonstrated in striking visuals and the themes of escape and flight that extend beyond the circus' aerial acts.
Birds soar over the heads of three boys, who denigrate the circus for its childishness, despite the fact that they are merely 11 years old.
Mothers stir pots of bubbling rice, uncertain of their children's next meal, but spouting soaring dreams of good fortune into the steam.
And tightly cropped shots capture the leading characters' drive -- to flee their paralyzing lives, even if for only a few hours a day.
The film's total budget was under $250,000 and funded with the Fulbright award, grants, and contributions from private donors.
Richardson invested some of her own money, but it wasn't the only risk she took.
In one scene, two boys perch on towering boulders, daring each other to be the first to plunge into the treacherous, swirling ocean waters below. Finally, one of them jumps.
"The truth of the story is that, when they got there, they refused to jump. They wouldn't jump until I did. So that part isn't true: Djeferson wasn't the first one," she admits.
Physical danger also lurked on the streets, from kids holding her at knife point in an attempt to get her cell phone, to drug dealers protecting their turf in nearly every neighborhood, to the police on the street who became incensed at her attempt to film them as they beat a suspect.
"They ended up destroying my tape, but they let me go," she says.
After 10 months of filming, Richardson tapped into her Berkeley roots during postproduction. John Antonelli, a 25-year documentary film producer and director, provided vital connections to editor Quinn Costello and composer B. Quincy Griffin. Sound Editor Mark Berger came from a more personal contact.
"I went to elementary school with his son, so I'd been to birthday parties at his house," Richardson laughs. "He gave me advice about the edit and said he'd do the final mix."
After following the lives of these four children for a year, it's not surprising to discover that Richardson still feels immersed in their well-being. What's remarkable about her first documentary is that the viewer -- compelled by her deft editorial hand and intimate, unadorned documentation -- shares her hope that one small film can shed the stereotypical portrayal of an economically disadvantaged people and set them free to dream.
"Without A Net" will be screened at 1 p.m. Oct. 6 at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre, 142 Throckmorton Ave. in Mill Valley. For details visit the Mill Valley Film Festival website, www.mvff.com.