The Lads From St Saviours.
photo credit: the justified sinner
If you’ve ever entered the IFI at peak time, you’ll notice there’s a lot of people just standing around, standing around and waiting, for dates and friends.
So, ambling over and interrupting several of the more male looking inpatients waiting with the question “are you one of the lads from Saviours?” left me with one clear lesson in mind when interviewing people you’ve never met before: it’s probably best to get a mobile phone number off them, or at least mention that you’ll be standing there waving around something totally conspicuous, like I don’t know, maybe the ape-sized publication that accompanies DEAF this year?
Either way, when I eventually find Ross Whitaker and Liam Nolan, they’ve just finished tea with one of their dads, and as it happens they are just as unsure as me, if the background noise of the IFI is a good thing for my dicta-phone.
The medallion success of Darren Sutherland at the Beijing Olympics has given their debut feature length documentary Saviours an energy of purpose it might otherwise have lacked and brought a larger degree of attention to their movie. Sutherland comes across as a humble character, with little awareness of his own ability as a fighter, as he tethers between a dedication to study and boxing.
If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to hurry up before it leaves Dublin’s cinemas for elsewhere. Using a delicate fly on the wall approach to the fortunes of three young boxers preparing for national competitions, Saviours leaves audiences with a chronicle of two years in the life of Dublin’s Saviours Boxing Club.
As we eventually get down to the interview, it doesn’t look like they have any confidence in my dicta-phone and hold it pitifully close to their mouths when talking, so I start with the question of why boxing became the subject of their documentary?
Liam had made a radio documentary for RTE on Saviours before he’d ever met Ross as it turns out and he explained the attaction of the subject.
“There’s good stories in a boxing club, they do a lot of good things. Good social work around the area, lots of interesting characters. And I remember when I met Ross, he was like ‘have you thought of making a film project about that?’ and he was quite enthuasastic about it. So I think both of us thought you could follow certain stories, there’s a natural dramatic arc there.”
It’s probably fair to say that Saviours does more than just highlight a sport – it highlights a sense of pride in marginalized communities, and in places such as Dominic St where boxers like Dean Murphy featured in the film carry hopes broader than themselves and find drive to do it “for the area and for the flats.”
Whitaker seems to agree: “I’d go along with all of that. It’s something we think about when we look at subject material, is there anything at stake in this story or in people’s lives? Because if there is then it’s worth something and you have a structure. Let’s say there was an upper class boxing area, or a boxing team in a really salubrious school, then there’d certainly be interesting stories there. But with an inner city boxing club, there’s a story outside of the ring. And we certainly found that with the three characters.”
Absent of narration, the subjects themselves use the camera to voice their fears and concerns in the documentary. You are drawn into the exclusively male world of boxing and the dramas of the gym, and as in most sports-based cinema-making, there’s the gasp of injury, the work of team building and the fear of disillusion in training.
But when you step back and look at what you’ve just watched again, you start to realize that there’s actually very little boxing in Saviours, as Liam points out.
“Yeah, there’s like four minutes of actual boxing.”
The club is used as a stage for drawing on the wider stories offered by the central characters. For a period of about six months they were there three times a month, shooting a large amount of people, but then once they had found their three stories they could hone in.
“We were expected to come along just as much as any of the boxers. The final scene is when they are turning off the lights and they say ‘we’ll see ya on Thursday lads.’ I always think that encapsulates how we were welcomed in the club. Even though they couldn’t figure out what we were doing and were like ‘Jesus ye’re here again?” explains Ross.
There’s a host of peripheral characters like the rare auld Dublin wit Johnny the Coach, who personifies a particular Dublin banter of nonsense accusations and affectionate abuse too often poorly imitated by script writers.
The pair describe how as their subjects grew more comfortable with the documentary process, it veered off the mat towards the personal stories of the boxers.
Ghanaian asylum seeker and national hopeful, Abdul Hussain is trapped in a crisis of place as he sees it “having the right to do nothing” while he struggles with the Irish immigration process. Wedded to the observational mode of documentary making, Liam explains how they allowed the voices of the boxers to put flesh on the broader social themes arising.
“Rather than put our big social commentary over it, we tried to tell it in their words, that’s why we honed in on their stories to tell it from their point of view. We just decided to film it and let our subject’s words speak for themselves. You get the same picture if not stronger that way.”
The film leaves you with a strong impression that the club had become a hinge for Hussain’s precarious existence in the legal process. Nolan and Whittaker capture the relentless optimism of the young man as he battles the legal process. Members of the club instill bold hope, as they try and secure help from local politicians. And there’s one scene where the club chairman reads a letter from Bertie Ahearn.
Both of them describe the detached diplomacy of it all, or as Ross puts it “I’m writing to acknowledge that you’ve written to me, but I may not do anything about it.”
The film ends with a sucker punch scene of pained emotional array as Abdul opens a letter from immigration to realize his faith. First he misreads it as an acceptance letter, but joy soon turns to sorrow as he rereads it and realises his application has been rejected.
It’s a triumphant moment of observational story telling, and for film makers that spent nearly two years around their subjects it must have been gut-wrenching for them too? Ross filmed the scene.
“In one way you don’t want to film it and want to put the camera down and help them. There’s also the argument of to what extent are you exploiting people if you are filming very personal parts of their lives. But if you go into it in a very truthful fashion and you discuss these things with the subject, which we did. That’s the nature of documentary making, and that’s the power of it.”
For a club that trains champions, it’s facilities look spartan, a jamboree of local fund raising and whatever can be got from state coffers. The three main characters are idealized by younger males that linger just off camera, deities in the world of sweat and promise that is Saviours.
Boxing is a sport that so often is, and maybe rightly, viewed, as an unfortunate exercise in voyeuristic violence on the bodies of the impoverished and socially excluded. But over all, Saviours makes it clear boxing can also be a source of community, providing mental strength and release. As it turns out Ross is not a fan of boxing, but takes up the argument anyway.
“I don’t know which is the lesser of those two evils, I mean there is violence in boxing, you can get beaten up. But I do think it is fundamentally a sport and in any sport you can get injured. In amateur boxing you are talking about four two minute rounds where the guys spend far more time not hitting each other than they do hitting each other.
“Now, I’ve been around professional boxing a lot as it happens, and I would go with you in that case. In the amateur game and the club we were filming in, what you see is a haven for people where they can get away from other possibilities and have a focus in their lives.
“If guys are in it because they want to go and become professional and make money out of it, then sure there is that element to it. But a lot of these guys, they go and box, they focus their lives, they go on to college, they go on to jobs, they come back with their wifes and they have very fruitful lives that probably start with the discipline of the club. So, certainly, with the amateur game it couldn’t be anything other than a positive, particular in those communities.”
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