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SXSW: Luchadoras

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico is one of the most dangerous cities in the world.  Between the years of 1993 and 2005, hundreds of women were brutally murdered, many discovered mutilated in the dessert and others never to be recovered. This violence against women in particular came from two dangerous forces: a drug cartel that wields incredible power still to this day and a deeply entrenched culture of machismo. Although the women of Ciudad Juarez live in constant fear of violence, they still manage to survive and thrive. For some, they find physical, emotional and mental strength as luchadoras: female Lucha Libre wrestlers known for wearing colorful costumes and masks in the ring.

Directed by Paola Calvo and Patrick Jasim, Luchadoras is a powerful documentary that follows three women wrestlers, Lady Candy, Baby Star and Mini Sirenita, as they transcend their circumstances and find strength through their sport. The resiliency of these women is astounding. A must-see for anyone seeking out feminist documentaries or who were inspired by stories like GLOW on Netflix.

Trigger warning: the film discusses violence against women. For those with hearing sensitivities like myself, there are several scenes in which the low battery chirp from a fire alarm can be heard.

Luchadoras had its world premiere at the virtual 2021 SXSW Film Festival.

Bull

14-year-old Kris (Amber Havard) is restless. With her mother in jail, she and her sister are spending the summer with their aunt. To impress the local kids, she breaks into the house of neighbor Abe Turner (Rob Morgan), a rodeo clown away at work. Kris hosts a wild party leaving Abe’s home a total disaster. It’s obvious that Kris is going down the same path as her mom, one of crime and recklessness. A deal is made in which Kris will pay for her break-in by cleaning Abe’s house and doing chores for him. Kris is swept up in the world of the rodeo and develops an interest in bull riding. Abe, tortured by old injuries and a penchant for drink, sees his livelihood slipping away from him. Will Kris and Abe be able to help each other before their lives spiral out of control?

Directed and co-written by Annie Silverstein, Bull is a meandering drama that explores the pains of self-destruction. The film takes its time with its characters. There is no rush to get to any big event or final conclusion. This allows viewers to really settle into this world. The film’s major weakness is having a principal character, Kris, with no redeeming qualities. It’s clear that she’s following in her mother’s footsteps and is lacking the guidance to put her on the right path. But there is very little, if anything, to make us empathize with her plight. Abe is a more dynamic and complex character. By the end, the film left me frustrated and ready to move on.

Bull is available on VOD through Samuel Goldwyn Films. You can watch it on Amazon Prime, iTunes and other platforms.

Champs

Review by Ale Turdó

RATING: 9/10

The eternal underdog.

Director Bert Marcus steps inside the ring to run a deep and critical status check on the boxing world. Champs (2014) might initially be perceived as your average run-of-the-mill boxing doc, but scene after scene and interview after interview it reveals to be so much more.

Pivoting between the legendary sporting careers of heavyweight powerhouses Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Bernard Hopkins, Champs keeps its distance from the glossy fables of success we usually stumble upon within the genre. Instead, it tries to make sense of a business in desperate need of deconstructing and self re-evaluation.

Boxing as a sport is rooted deeply in the American culture, it may have become the ultimate representation of the American dream: young people raised in poverty, coming from humble neighborhoods and having no role models. Surrounded by bullies, pimps, drugs and gangs. Those who might strike gold inside the ring lose it just as fast at the hands of their managers, layers and ultimately their own incapability of grasping the harsh side of the business. Which raises the question: why is this system still running?

An A-list of boxers, trainers, promoters, journalists, biographers, movie directors and actors share their thoughts on this unforgiving sport, where everybody learns their lesson the hard way and rising up can be just as easy as falling down.

The documentary builds its narrative around the different profiles of Tyson, Holyfield and Hopkins both inside and outside the ring: Tyson as the uncontrollable force of nature that spins out of control, Holyfield as the methodic sportsman and Hopkins as the underdog that turned his life around. The singularities of the three character’s careers and their charismatic personalities blend with Marcus’s masterplan of shining a light over the most controversial issues of the boxing world.

As usual in Marcus’s body of work, the archive material plays a key role. Footage from fights, training and excerpts of all the media frenzy surrounding a boxer’s everyday life paints a chaotic and accurate picture rarely seen in a sports documentary.

One of the most interesting things in Champs is the way it keeps focus on the social aspect embedded in the boxing culture. It emphasizes the fatherly role of trainers, the broken homes as the textbook origin point and the false perception of winning as the only way to escape from poverty and violence. The inefficiency of the incarceration system in the United States -which no longer has the capability or the programs to re-educate individuals and simply turns them into something worse- is also portrayed as a problem that hits society but has also a severe impact in the boxing circuit.

When you win, everybody wins, but when you lose, you lose alone. That seems to be the toughest lesson. But Tyson, Holyfield and Hopkins testimonies work as a silver lining, sharing the hopeful idea that the love for the game -in its purest form- which is ingrained in the fabric of the country, may one day elevate the sport and all of those involved, in order to make it fair and safe for everyone. I guess a boxer can only hope, right?

Foto Ale TN_2018 Ale Turdó —Based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Alejandro is a film critic and movie enthusiast that has been writing about movies for the past 7 years, covering everything from blockbusters to indie gems and all in between. He majored in Sound Design and Cinematography in college and is a full time digital content producer. He’s the kind of guy that thinks that even the worst movie can have something interesting to write about. Additionally, he writes for Escribiendo Cine and A Sala Llena. Twitter: @aleturdo and IG: @hoysalecine

TIFF: Knuckle City

“Welcome to Knuckle City. Where the boys are rough and tough and the girls are a knock-out.”

Dudu (Bongile Mantsai), aka the Night Rider, is aging out of his sport. He trains at the local boxing gym with much younger competitors and when its time to assign boxers to new matches, gym manager Bra Links (Owen Sejake) leaves him out. Dudu needs the boxing gig to keep him going emotionally and financially. He’s got several mouths to feed and a disabled mother (Faniswa Yisa) to care for. But in the highly corrupt world of “Knuckle City”, the name for the boxing community in Mdantsane Township in South Africa, he’ll have to partake in some dirty dealings to get back into the ring. 

Whether Dudu realizes it or not, he’s following closely in his father Art Nyakama (Zolisa Xaluva), the former boxing champ turned gangster who ran the gym where Dudu trains. Flashbacks show Dudu and his younger brother Duke (Thembikile Komani) and their difficult upbringing that turns tragic when Art is assassinated and Mother Hen is left a paraplegic. Dudu inherits his dad’s love for boxing and women and the motto that you’re not a true man if you don’t take care of your family. Duke has grown up to be a professional criminal and when he’s finally released from jail, Dudu seeks out Duke’s help to re-enter the world of boxing and for a chance at the highly coveted championship. This new partnership comes with incredibly high stakes putting everyone in Dudu’s life in grave danger.

Photo courtesy of TIFF

Director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s Knuckle City is absolutely riveting and just plain brutal. This film is gritty and intense and it grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. The world of Knuckle City serves as a study of toxic masculinity. There is plenty of machismo however the women are not to be messed with. While they don’t match the men in screen time they do match them in strength of character. These women include Nosisi (Awethu Hleli), Dudu’s daughter who serves as caretaker for her younger siblings and grandmother and is having a romantic relationship with a thug from a particularly dangerous gang, Mother Hen (Faniswa Yisa) who survives an abusive marriage and an assassination and Ma Bokwana (Nomhle Nkonyeni), the counterpart to gangster kingpin Bra Prat (Patrick Ndlovu).

“Growing up in the township of Mdantsane in the 80s and 90s was an experience that has shaped the entirety of my life. The energy of the landscape and the visceral fight for survival that is palpable on the streets has inspired in me a deep yearning to chronicle the lives of its inhabitants through cinema… [Knuckle City] is an ode to my formative years and an exploration and fundamental dissection of the toxic masculinity that continues to purvey in this space.”

Jahmil X.T. Qubeka

Knuckle City is both boxing movie and family saga and Qubeka presents both in a balanced and compelling way. I was captivated by this film and its easily a new favorite for me. Mantsai is brilliant as Dudu and I loved the scenes between him and Duke played by Thembikile Komani. 

The actors speak a mix of Xhosa, a native Bantu language with a series of clicking consonants, English and what I believe might be Afrikaans. Xhosa is a fascinating language and I was particularly intrigued in how it fits in the social fabric of the local community. If you’re a fan of boxing films such as the Rocky and Creed series, Raging Bull, The Fighter and The Set-Up, Knuckle City is not one to miss.

Knuckle City had its international premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their contemporary world cinema program.

The Spy Behind Home Plate

“He was a man apart… different from the others.”

Moe Berg was an extraordinary human being. The son of immigrant Jewish parents, he developed prowess as a baseball player, studied at Princeton, received his law degree at Columbia, traveled the world, spoke over 10 languages, was the star of the trivia show Information Please and just happened to be a spy for the U.S. government during WWII.

Aviva Kempner’s documentary The Spy Behind Home Plate paints a portrait of the human phenomenon that was Moe Berg. A catcher with a 15 year career in the Major Leagues, Berg went against his father’s wishes to pursue his baseball dreams. From those early days he already showed potential for a future career as a spy. He used Latin and Sanskrit to create secret codes for his fellow baseball players so they could communicate without informing the other team. Berg was part of a diplomatic mission to Japan, led by Babe Ruth, to train Japanese players and share the mutual love of the sport in an effort bridge the growing divide. Berg, the quintessential polyglot, spoke fluent Japanese and hung around in Japan then traveled to Asia and already started gathering intelligence photographing and filming in areas that were forbidden by the local government. During WWII, he was recruited for the OSS Operational Group. He had proven his chops with his fluency in a variety of languages, including German. 

A man of the world, Moe Berg was the epitome of brain and brawn. We learn about his extraordinary life through interviews with family members, experts, historians, filmmakers, athletes, sports columnists and figures as well as archival footage and photographs. This documentary is multi-faceted, much like the man himself. It’s a satisfying combination of baseball and WWII history but works on its own as a biographical documentary about a fascinating subject. The film gets a bit muddled with all of the details during Berg’s time in the OSS but those who are well-versed in military history will find much to enjoy here. Film buffs will appreciate the variety of clips from classic war movies included in the documentary.

The Spy Behind Home Plate is presented by The Ciesla Foundation. It released in theaters Friday and there are screenings nationwide through July and August. Visit the official website for information on screenings.

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