Life is a bumpy ride for the family portrayed in "Behind the Lights," Sandra Sanchez's affecting fly-on-the-wall study of a gypsy woman's struggles to keep things from falling apart.

Life is a bumpy ride for the family portrayed in “Behind the Lights,” Sandra Sanchez’s affecting fly-on-the-wall study of a gypsy woman’s struggles to keep things from falling apart. Having spent nine months traveling around fairgrounds with protagonist Lourdes, her family and their bumper cars, Sanchez has edited down 200 hours of footage into an item to be cherished. Striking just the right balance between detachment and intimacy, the docu does full justice to the extraordinary stories hidden inside these unusual lives. “Lights” looks set to shine at fests.

Shot in Galicia in northern Spain, the docu began as a document of the disappearing way of life of itinerant owners of fairground attractions. Soon it became a character study of 34-year-old Lourdes, who, when not surrounded by demanding children, is surrounded by men more noted for brawn than brains. The film tracks their lives from fairground to fairground through the good months of summer and the bad months of winter.

A complex mix of fragility and resilience, Lourdes was married at 17 to Jose and became a mother at 18. Jose has lost his driver’s license, so it’s up to Lourdes to motor their 40-ton truck from town to town, struggling to shift through the gears. Jose seems none too pleased to have a camera following him, perhaps because he knows his wife is nonchalantly revealing his failings to camera.

The team of workers on the bumper cars includes Rui, who spends a lot of time on his cell phone fending off girls he’s met in various towns; burly Felipe, who is filmed happily reading a comicbook of “Beauty and the Beast”; and, most affectingly, Arturo, a silent ghost of a man who joined the family after becoming friends with Jose, and whose terminal illness becomes one of the film’s subjects. Lourdes’ strongest emotional attachment appears to be with him.

By the end, the docu has built up a fair head of emotional steam, largely due to Sanchez’s warts-and-all access to the family’s private life, which takes “Behind the Lights” far beyond a mere study of the secret life of gypsies. Indeed, during shooting, Sanchez seems to have become practically part of the family, or a protecting eyewitness.

“Life should be lived twice,” reflects Lourdes. “The second time to avoid mistakes.” World-weary and disillusioned, occasionally exploding into rage, she is given plenty of time to express herself here in voiceover musings, enjoying a presumably rare chance to talk to a sympathetic listener. At one point, she says she doesn’t feel like a good mother; at another, she says she doesn’t care if her kids don’t attend school, since by 16 they know everything anyway. But Sanchez makes it pretty clear that being a good mother is tough under such demanding circumstances.

Visually, the pic takes its cues from the work of another Spanish femme helmer, Mercedes Alvarez, featuring lengthy, static shots that seem to be the result of Sanchez letting the camera roll and hoping something interesting will happen, which it often does. Strikingly composed images of the fairground at night, or of a child dancing in the rain, combine with handheld footage of seemingly endless moments of crisis.

Acho Estol’s simple, guitar-based score is pretty and evocative, but overused.

Behind the Lights

Spain-Argentina-Portugal

Production

A Festival Films (in Spain) release of a Tic Tac Producciones, Lagarto Cine, Ukbar Filmes production with the participation of TVG, RTP. (International sales: Tic Tac, A Coruna, Spain.) Produced by Fernanda del Nido, Hugo Castro Fau, Pandora da Cunha Telles. Directed, written by Sandra Sanchez.

Crew

Camera (color), Sanchez; editors, Sanchez, Nahum C. Fiuza; music, Acho Estol; sound (Dolby Digital), Claudio Canedo, Diego S. Staub. Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (Zabaltegi New Directors), Sept. 17, 2011. Running time: 112 MIN.

With

(Spanish, Portuguese, Galician dialogue)

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