Thousand Dollar Baby
Most boxing movies have a basic formula: underdog trains hard, suffers setbacks, and ultimately prevails over a seemingly unbeatable opponent; cue the climactic scene that ends with the victorious fighter, his arms upraised and his face pummeled, as thousands cheer. For the women who train at Lisa Bauch's Uppercut Boxing Gym in northeast Minneapolis, however, the story is a bit more complicated. The world is still getting used to the idea of women boxers, even after the huge success of Million Dollar Baby, and there are many false perceptions and stereotypes left to break. But Boxers, an inspiring documentary feature about some of Uppercut's sparring stars, goes a long way toward giving these hardworking fighters their due.
Directed by local filmmaker Joanna Kohler, Boxers follows several women from Uppercut as they train for the 2005 Ringside International Tournament. Bauch, one of the first women in the country to own an amateur gym, deftly guides her fighters—Becca Gilgen, Amy Laboe, Sarah Mickelson, Rachel Schley, Gina Campbell, and Dagney Willey—through tough workouts six days a week. The fighters refine their technique, increase their speed, narrow their focus, master their fears, and support one another as a tight-knit team. But boxing isn't just about landing punches; the "sweet science" relies just as much on mental as on physical prowess, and the boxers featured in Kohler's film gamely open up about their personal journeys both inside and outside the ring. Willey recalls a bout in which her opponent's blood soaked her gloves. Mickelson talks about boxing as a necessary release of energy. Gilgen, a social worker, points out the many issues that come into play in a match, including race, privilege, and class. For these women, boxing is much more than an effective fitness regime, and they are not afraid to tackle any of the hot-button issues around their chosen sport, including its brutal image.
Kohler first learned about Uppercut when one of the boxers invited her to a match. "I thought it was incredibly violent and wanted nothing to do with it," she recalls in a phone chat. "Then I met with the boxers and found out they were really articulate." After another filmmaker's efforts to document the boxers earned their ire for over-sexualized imagery, they asked Kohler to give it a try. "I hung out with them a lot," she says, explaining that she shot more than 100 hours of footage in Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, and Kansas City. "I was fascinated by these women exploring their physical power."
Boxers represents a different direction for Kohler, who has focused primarily on making activist films including the half-hour doc about Israel-Palestine, "Moving in a Mirror," although it's clear that her sensitivity to social-justice issues serves her well in this venture about women trailblazing in a traditionally male sport. The experience "opened my eyes a lot more to storytelling," says Kohler, acknowledging the challenges—including a surprising change of heart—that the boxers experienced over the course of the year she spent with them. "There were a lot of unexpected journeys, and there was no way I could have seen where the film was going when I started," she says. Kohler also didn't likely foresee that she, too, would be donning gloves. The filmmaker has been training at Uppercut herself, although she's quick to point out that she has no plans to fight.
Boxers screens Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Loft Literary Center (1011 Washington Ave. S., Mpls.) as a fundraiser for its future distribution. For more info, visit www.boxersdocumentary.com.
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