Just because you work in a circus doesn’t mean you’re a prostitute.” This is a statement of feminist support, a denial of the received wisdom, from an audience member for Saraswoti and Sheetal, founders and performers in Nepal’s Circus Kathmandu. It’s an expression of an enlightened, go-girl attitude, exactly the sort of thing that the two women have been fighting for and struggling toward for the six years during which the extraordinary documentary Even When I Fall has been following them. It is a moment of small triumph when we witness this declaration, late in the film, and yet, that such a statement is necessary, that it feels like huge progress, and that it seems like something that not everyone would agree with are all very telling of how much more work Saraswoti and Sheetal have ahead of them.
When we talk about how women are marginalized, how our voices are not heard, it doesn’t get much more horrific than what has led Saraswoti and Sheetal to create Circus Kathmandu, Nepal’s very first such performing troupe. (It’s more Cirque du Soleil than Ringling Bros., acrobats and dancing, not lion tamers and clowns.) Both were trafficked to India as small children and sold into slavery — slavery! — in circuses there, and they meet in 2010 at a refuge back in Nepal for rescued circus slaves. Later, the women will speak in hushed tones about sexual abuse in their circuses. Sheetal feels lucky to have escaped that, but it isn’t clear whether Saraswoti considers what happened to her to have been wrong: she was “married” at 14 to the circus owner’s son, and was mother to three children by the time she was 17.
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