Still Fighting:
Frederick Wiseman’s Boxing Gym

FILM, Film Festivals

At the New Zealand International Film Festival: Another round from cinema’s preeminent documentary filmmaker.

A $50-a-month Texas boxing gym becomes an unlikely companion piece to the hallowed Paris Opera Ballet. Frederick Wiseman’s latest superb documentary on institutions—this time a boxing academy run by former professional boxer Richard Lord—once again features bodies in motion. The setting, however, could not be more different. Whereas La Danse featured high art (replete with considerable corporate sponsorship, a presumably wealthy background, and a guaranteed audience), Boxing Gym focuses on people in training for… well that’s something Wiseman isn’t interested in building up to in a narrative sense. But like any Wiseman film, what’s left unsaid is as much the story as what we see on film. And Wiseman’s depiction of bodies in training—despite the knowledge that almost all of the participants aren’t going to get anywhere in the sport—is a deeply affirming and emotionally engaging image.

American Cinema has turned the boxing movie into an art form. Arguably, it’s the raw spectacle of boxing, the simplicity of two people in a ring. Boxing movies have managed to pummel the American Dream into all sorts of metaphors, whether it be hope (Rocky), illusion (Fat City) or a misplaced conduit for other failings (Raging Bull), amongst others. Wiseman’s film offers community, and is fundamentally about the people who use Richard Lord’s gym. And he is able to show all aspects of society using it—the diverse ethnicities, genders, ages, and socio-economic backgrounds an almost democratic model for living. Like La Danse, Boxing Gym focuses on the body in motion, and with its subjects training, contorting, and flexing in such a relentless way, it can make an ordinary viewer feel desperately unfit. The film culminates in disquieting sparring—all that training and hard work points towards violence, and as raw and controlled as it may be, it’s still the overall purpose and end-game for them all.

Wiseman’s trademark style works wonders in seizing little moments and appearing seemingly unobtrusive in the process. (Though there are frequent glances to the camera early on, Wiseman becomes part of the setting as the film progresses). And the soundtrack, in particular, is incredible—a rhythmic chug of end-of-round bells, breaths, and bags being hit, as if on loop, lending a dynamic sense of energy to proceedings. Wiseman’s images subtly highlight the differences between the cast, and the natural hierarchies that seem to exist in all the institutions he has studied. A buff man demonstrates the Colombian dance/music cumbia, in response to his companion’s lack of knowledge of Latin American music. A conversation initially about Shakespeare morphs into one about Crimestoppers. Babies watch the action from prams as their mothers train, while another mother has to cut training short to breast-feed. Some fighters offer their views on how they would have dealt with the Virginia Tech massacre, the hierarchies of violence sharply delineated by the participants. Boxing Gym also shows people doing hard work, ordinary Americans, from all sectors of society. It’s a telling depiction of everydayness—far removed from the sermonising cross-societal portraits we frequently see on film. With each person expending considerable energy, trying to better themselves in the simplest way as possible, Wiseman, perhaps most profoundly of all, captures the simple beauty in their behaviour.

‘Boxing Gym’, Dir. Frederick Wiseman
USA, 2010; 91 minutes
Screening: Auckland, Wellington; Christchurch, Dunedin (TBC). For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.