Shadow boxing

"On the Ropes" co-directors Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen follow three fighters into the "real" inner city.

Published October 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When the godfather of the American documentary, Robert Flaherty, made "Nanook of the North" (1922), he had no qualms about staging scenes with his Eskimo subjects or asking them to build an igloo that would suit his camera. He wanted to achieve an imaginative and visual power worthy of Nanook's battle for survival.

Most modern documentarians aim for the appearance of unvarnished truth and shy away from the cathartic beauty of Flaherty's storytelling legacy. But that legacy returns with a knockout punch in "On the Ropes," a film about contemporary amateur fighters at Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy Boxing Center. A favorite at Sundance and other festivals, it has already opened to acclaim in a half-dozen cities and will continue to roll out throughout the fall.

The co-directors are Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen, NYU film school graduates who performed different jobs in the documentary world (Burstein as an editor, producer and writer, Morgen as a director and cameraman) before teaming up in "On the Ropes." They don't invent incidents the way Flaherty did. But they do use all the elements of film to shape their subjects' lives into an emotionally engulfing story.

Every choice they make -- whether in shooting, editing or sound -- brings us deeper into the psyches of their characters. The film pivots on Harry Keitt, a trainer who short-circuited his own pugilistic career when he couldn't stay away from drugs and crime. Harry hopes that he can keep three protigis from repeating his mistakes. What he can't do, of course, is keep them from making their own mistakes.

Tyrene Manson, an ardent female fighter, gets indicted for possession of crack with intent to sell simply because she lives with a crack-addicted uncle. (She is the legal guardian of his children.) But during her train wreck of a trial, you don't just agonize over the injustice of the legal system; you also agonize over Tyrene's inability to present herself as the heroine she is. She doesn't see that her righteous anger can be construed as contempt.

Harry's prize prospect, a sunny-faced natural named George Walton, embodies the stresses of youthful impatience and success. And Harry's third charge, Noel Santiago, admits at the outset, "I was still robbing when I was boxing, but not as much as I used to." Noel is a slippery, amoral innocent who somehow grows from boy to boy-man. There's no more heartening moment in the film than when he brags to Harry about getting the top score on a storefront-college English exam.

The filmmakers convey Harry and his fighters' victories and defeats with a soul-rocking combination of intimacy and intricacy. Even at its most tragic, "On the Ropes" doesn't leave you hopeless. You believe that Harry and Tyrene, Noel and George will be redeemed. When I spoke to Burstein and Morgen two weeks ago, they sounded pumped with faith and affection for their characters.

How did you choose the people you focus on?

Burstein: I first went to that gym to learn how to box, without any intention of making a film. As I was training I became friendly with everyone there, and I started to find out about their lives. This was in 1996. By the time we thought of doing the film it was clear from the get-go who was going to be in it. It was not the place that was the main attraction -- it was the particular people and their conflicts, although the setting added a lot.

Unlike many "socially conscious" movies, your documentary views boxing not as exploitation, but as a real athletic discipline.

Morgen: We identified with the characters as individuals, not because of a political agenda. We didn't want to present them from any class perspective, theirs or ours.

Burstein: For us, the movie was going to be a human story about the underdog striving to achieve; it wasn't about class or race.

Morgen: But ultimately class and race did enter the picture, particularly in relation to Tyrene's trial. If there's a message to the film, it's that if you don't have money, you get screwed. Still, what sets this movie apart is how the politics emerge from the story. It's not like we're trying to preach anything. I hope the movie allows audiences to draw their own conclusions and plays across party lines. Conservatives have come up to us and said, "I don't think much about the inner city, but that woman got a raw deal."

In fact, doesn't the boxing ethic -- with its emphasis on self-improvement and self-reliance -- fit a conservative ethic?

Burstein: Oh yeah -- it's all about "pulling yourself up by your boot-straps." No matter what their politics, all kinds of audiences can be outraged by what happened to Tyrene, because her situation did not arise out of laziness. The stereotype is that people end up in jail or end up losing because they don't work hard enough, and you can see that's not the case with her. She's the most determined woman you'll ever meet.

This is your first work as a directing team, and it's a totally mature work. Which of your predecessors helped you find your way?

Morgen: We have absolute respect for the tradition of non-fiction filmmaking in this country, but I can't point to a lot of other films that influenced us stylistically. We are trying to tell stories that don't necessarily feel like documentaries. If we have a role model it's probably Robert Flaherty, who made films with real people that pulled you into a dramatic story through veriti scenes, with no talking heads. Both Nanette and I came to documentary from studying at NYU, which is predominantly narrative.

Burstein: We both started out making short fiction films.

Morgen: My heroes were always filmmakers like John Ford, Truffaut and Godard. We want to take everything we know about making features and apply it to non-fiction.

The challenge for you, I would think, is to bring such emotional authority to the storytelling that we in the audience have no doubt we're getting what's essential.

Morgen: Obviously, in our film, there were certain moments we couldn't get, like the raid, when the cops were invading Tyrene's house. Even if we had happened to be there, the cops would have thrown us out or arrested us, too.

Burstein: But when making a film, we're basically giving up our lives so that we can be there for the moments when anything dramatic happens -- so that you don't have to hear a character telling you about something that happened yesterday.

We want you to experience exactly what the characters are going through. And it was essential to do that with this story because you see the problems of the inner city on the nightly news all the time -- but you don't live them.

Morgen: I don't think you hear enough about what's happening in the inner city. The media have tried to group our film in with "Hoop Dreams" as a genre of inner-city sports films. But there have been two films -- three films tops -- that have ever been made like this. Compare that to 300 pieces of fluffy Hollywood crap like "Runaway Bride." There's some reluctance on the part of the media to recognize the imbalance. The only negative reviews we've gotten have been in leftist free weeklies, where we've been attacked for being white people telling a story about blacks that has been done before. And it makes me so irate, because this story has not been done enough.

We were at this dinner party where everyone was discussing the problems of the inner city, and they didn't know what the hell they were talking about. All they were basing it on was "Hoop Dreams."

Burstein: What's interesting is that people who watch our film say they've never seen this side of our legal system. You see what a small drug trial really is -- with opening statements and closing statements that are not nearly as eloquent as what we've been led to believe. Tyrene's lawyer was not a public defender, he was court-appointed, which can be worse, because public defenders often take on the job with high ideals, and the intention of gaining experience and going into private law. But even public defenders don't have the time and the resources to do people justice as far as representing them in a case. They can't hire an investigator or a researcher, if that were the best way to handle it; that's not a possibility.

Was there any moment when Tyrene's attorney tried to prepare her testimony?

Morgen: If there were, we would have put it in.

Burstein: I even asked him, "Aren't you going to coach her before she goes on the stand?" And he said, "Yeah, yeah." And he never did.

This brings up the classic documentary question: Were you paralyzed by feelings of helplessness and horror as you were watching this occur?

Burstein: Absolutely. When we saw how she was performing on the stand, we wanted to shout out in the courtroom and just tell her to stop. But of course we couldn't do that.

Morgen: If there had been a recess in the trial, we would have taken Tyrene aside and said "Calm down." But we did talk to her. Nanette and I both hoped that she would cop a plea.

We don't feel any responsibility to anyone to be "objective" and not interfere with the process. It's easy for people who aren't in the field to say we should stay hands-off. When you're out there every day, you're forming relationships with your subjects. Nanette and I are going to interject when we feel we can interject. The film is important, but their lives are more important, and we're not going to withhold advice from them.

When Noel was thinking of quitting boxing, and Harry came to visit him, Harry wasn't getting through to him. At one point I put the camera down and Nanette and I chimed in. We didn't give a shit about the film; we cared about Noel. We believed in what Harry was saying, and we needed to voice our opinion. I think the audience can rest assured that everything that they're seeing in this film unfolded the way it unfolded. Everyone who's in the film has seen it and they all believe that it's a totally honest and accurate representation of what happened. At the same time, we're going to get involved when we need to get involved.

Isn't objectivity a false issue in a portrait of characters like this one?

Morgen: You put a camera on someone and they're going to act different. In fact, you need to direct them even more. It goes back to Flaherty: you're trying to achieve a higher truth. If you roll a camera on a situation, everyone is going to be like, "Omigod, the camera," so your job as a director is to create an environment in which they can respond in a way that's natural.

Something that sets "On the Ropes" apart from most documentaries -- or movies -- is that you allow us to have a complicated response to each character. That came home to me when George signs up with a hard-driving manager, begins training with a former light-heavyweight champ, and relegates Harry to a minor position. George is no ingrate, George's advisers are solid pros, and Harry isn't simply a victim. You feel that if Harry weren't so mistrustful and insecure, he might have found a bigger and more lasting role in George's corner.

Burstein: Something that was essential to us in making the film was that every character was complex, because that is how people are in life. We didn't want to show Harry as this completely altruistic guy. He had selfish reasons for wanting to stay with George. And it was partly Harry's fault that he got kicked out. He had gotten so paranoid, and he didn't fully have the skills to take George to the next level.

Morgen: We liken George and Harry's story to a couple in a relationship, where one person is extremely jealous, and the other person is extremely faithful; eventually, the faithful person is going to get so sick of the jealous person questioning him that's he's going to leave. "Why don't you trust me?" "Leave me alone." That's sort of Harry's relationship with George.

This is one documentary with an extensive original score. I thought it included a deft use of existing rap music -- until I read the credits and saw that even the songs were composed for the movie.

Morgen: Most documentaries have some elements of score, but I think our composer, Teddy Shapiro, who also wrote the music to the songs, brought unusual intelligence and sensitivity to the task at hand. He was able to reflect what was happening to the characters. It wasn't, "Let's try to rape the emotions of the audience for this scene"; he created themes for each individual and reprised them in various renditions.

We also spent three months on sound design. Every sound you hear in the fights has been done in post-production. You hear every punch, every breath, every time their feet move.

Ron Shelton ("Bull Durham"), who recently completed his own boxing movie ("Play It to the Bone"), told me that he thought what made the fight scenes work in "Raging Bull" was the sound design.

Burstein: We did all of our sound effects in some of the same places where Scorsese did them for "Raging Bull."

Morgen: We were mesmerized by the way Scorsese created a different ambient sound for every single fight scene in that film. No two fight scenes sounded alike. And if you watch "On the Ropes" with careful attention, you'll notice that the punches used in George's Golden Gloves fight are completely different from the punches you hear in Noel's second Golden Gloves fight. In George's fight we used a lot of what I like to refer to as "wet punches" -- splashy -- we'd take them and put in lions' roars and elephant noises and stuff on the punches. But in Noel's second fight it's very wooden and hollow, and there's no music to support anything; you feel the pain of the punches in a different way.

Burstein: We wanted a mood for every fight that fit what was happening in the storyline.

Morgen: It's all part of trying to make movies that reach as broad an audience as possible. Some people look at us as if they want to say, "What the hell are you talking about? You're a documentarian." But our goal is to get our work out there. The reality is, we chose to work with real people because we found the experience of making films with them more exhilarating.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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