“Boxers and Ballerinas” is not a masterpiece. But this decent and charming film is good enough to have made it a contender in the documentary category of the Golden Gate Awards of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.
The ninety minute movie follows the every day activities of four ambitious young people and looks at their individual hopes and anxieties, the relationship they have with their families and the professional aspirations they harbor for themselves. Two of them are boxers, two of them are ballerinas. Yordenis Ugas and Annia Ismarlin-Recio Oquendo live in Cuba; Sergio Garcia and Paula Roque in Miami.
The film centers on boxing and dancing because, according to the film makers, sports and the arts are activities that allow Cubans a modicum of personal freedom—particularly to travel—not available to others.
The two directors, Mike Cahill, age 25, and Brit Marling, 22—who shot and edited the film with a grand budget of $100,000—met while students at Georgetown University. They are just about the same age as the subjects of their inquiry. Cahill has been filming for the National Geographic Society for the last three years, but Marling is a Green Horn.
Their lack of experience shows. “Boxers” has a hard time getting off the ground. The sheer complexity of establishing something along a narrative trajectory with four different characters and their backgrounds would challenge more seasonal professionals. Additionally, the movie attempts to give the history of the current political stalemate between Cuba and the US through the extensive use of archival material from the seventies and the eighties. That is a lot of threads to weave together into a comprehensive fabric. Some of that old footage, chosen scrupulously evenhandedly, was fascinating to revisit. It was particularly informative to see the tight connection between the media and the government—and not just in Cuba.
A few times the filmmakers draw too much attention to themselves—a sure sign of inexperience, but also understandable from young artists in the heady throes of their first feature length film. There is a sense of excitement about movies as a medium which sometimes is a little naïve, but also infectious. Overhead seagulls suggesting freedom and fighting cocks standing for the survival of the fittest, for instance, are pretty obvious metaphors. Several times, we also watch also dancers’ movements blur into quasi abstractions—or we voyeuristically peek into a dance studio through the grillwork of a window as if into some exotic place. These moments of overt self-consciousness are more distracting than illuminating.
Still despite some quibbles, “Boxers” is a remarkable accomplishment. It beautifully allows us into the lives of a quartet of high achievers who—without denying very real differences--have more in common than either of their governments would be willing to admit. What drives these young people is an awareness of how little time they have to reach their goals. Careers for boxers and dancers are notoriously short, and career-ending injuries are an ever present possibility.
Wisely, the filmmakers did not go the Ballet Nacional and Miami City Ballet but to lesser places. We see nineteen year-old Ismarlin in dilapitated studios packed with beautiful and clearly well trained dancers. Twenty-one year old Roque, daughter of former Ballet Nacional dancer Rosario Suarez, mostly practices in her mother’s small school in a modest corner building in Miami. If one of the movie’s points was to show one culture valuing community and the other individuality, it was encapsulated in these two dance environments. Both dancers ultimately get what they want, at least almost.
Roque wins an apprentiship to Washington Ballet but turns it down to go back to Miami to help her mother create the ballet company she so badly wants. As good documentarians the film makers stayed neutral on the issues whether Roque feared the competition of a big school or whether she simply wanted to work back home. Ismarlin, after many delays, gets the chance she worked so hard for, permission to travel to Vera Cruz in Mexico with a Cuban company. So it came somewhat as a shock, even though we had also seen her in a latin jazz class, to see that this wasn’t a ballet company but a Las Vegas style nightclub troupe. When filmed in Cuba, Ismarlin seemed rather reserved about her personal life though we do see her with a boyfriend. In Vera Cruz she was almost loquacious about how much she loved Cuba and missed her country and family. A cynic might suggest that she probably would have been afraid to say anything else, but this is not the impression she gave.
As for the boxers, the Cuban American Garcia wins his big fight in Miami—boxing he says is a way out of the ‘hood for him—and proudly shows off a Rolex (?) given him by a sponsor. At the end of the film, he is preparing to audition for a TV reality show on boxing. Maybe the most interesting of the four characters was Ugas who is something of a hero in his ‘hood in Cuba. Tall and lanky, with a swaying walk and full of pent up nervous energy, the neighbors send him off for his big fight with a presentation by, what looks like young pioneers, earnestly reciting their political slogans. When he comes back, having won the Junior Championship in Santiago (Cuba), the whole neighborhood celebrates his accomplishment. Among them is a little girl improvising the most adorable little dance in the dusty streets. At the film’s end, Ugas too has got his wish to travel. He won the Junior World Championship in Romania. And he did not defect.