Friday 8 May 2015

Fighters Move Forward (2014)

Director: Jake Lee
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
The Home Grown Shorts set at this year's Phoenix Film Festival started very strongly indeed with not one but three superb and very different films: Grace of a Stranger, Stolen Afternoon and The Class Analysis. It had to drop the standard sooner or later and it turned out to be here, with a documentary called Fighters Move Forward. It's not a bad film and there are certainly good bits in it, but even at only thirteen minutes, it's too long; I found it repeating background shots pretty quickly and it just can't find enough subjects to interview. Fortunately, the focus of the piece, Pete Chavez, is excellent on camera, so it does have a firm foundation, even if not a heck of a lot to build onto it. Given that the whole thing is about boxing, I could switch metaphors and suggest that it's found a good stance already but still needs to learn how to punch. The other catch is that, like the Best Documentary Feature winner, Angel of Nanjing, it comes over more as a promo piece than a documentary. It's certainly a good cause but a film needs more than that.

In fact, while director Jake Lee quickly puts Chavez in front of the camera to explain to us why we're here and why we should care, it takes him three minutes to move on to someone else. The positive side is that Chavez must have run through this spiel many times because he comes across well and quickly covers a lot of ground. He started Chavez Boxing Gym back in 2004 to some decent success, but soon found kids who needed the environment he was providing but couldn't pay for it. He let some in for free but couldn't do the same for everyone he'd like because he was running a business not a charity. Phoenix magazine's article on the gym made the difference, bringing Chavez to the attention of a reader who suggested that he start a non-profit organisation, even bringing in a pro bono lawyer to get him a 501(c)(3) status. Now he runs the Chavez Boxing Foundation too, which helps more kids who need Chavez to mentor them, not only to succeed in the gym and the ring but also in life. It's why we have a movie.
By the five minute mark, when Chavez finally brings up something more than just why he's there, we've only heard from one other person and he isn't as good in front of the camera as he presumably is in the ring. This doesn't bode well for the movie, even if it has to be why we've been focused almost entirely on one speaker, but it's here that things get interesting, as a conflict develops between Chavez on one side, an upstanding citizen who runs a clean gym, lives his life as an example and practices what he preaches, and local gangs on the other, who see him as a threat to their future. Some break into his gym, vandalise his equipment and graffiti death threats on his wall, but Chavez goes looking for them, finding some in a nearby park in Chavez Boxing Gym shirts that they clearly stole from him. He confronts them too, which escalates into a fight, with him presumably outnumbered, though we're never told how many. This is so stereotypical a bad action movie storyline that we're taken rather aback and it's why we keep watching.

Of course, it doesn't end up quite how it would for Van Damme, Rothrock or Lundgren, but that's not the point. The point is that it's refreshing to know that there are actual people like the heroes in outrageous action movies who we enjoy but never consider realistic. Chavez has far too much screen time and that hurts the film's credibility; over the entire running time, there are only two other people who speak to us and both of them are recipients of scholarships from the Chavez Boxing Foundation. The only objectivity comes from a brief news clip and that's not enough. I wish we could have had heard from people in the local community: politicians, neighbouring business owners or even former gang members. The biggest gap is surely the family of Melyssa Gastelum, one of Chavez's boxers who died in an accident and gave her name posthumously to that scholarship fund. Why couldn't Jake Lee find these people? Fortunately, Chavez himself is believably sincere and I hope this flawed film still helps him and his work.

Fighters Move Forward can be watched for free on Vimeo.

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