London Film Festival 2010: The S&S blog

Two very different sports documentaries:
Fire in Babylon and Boxing Gym

Fire in Babylon

Isabel Stevens, 27 October

Bringing just a bit of the atmosphere of the stands at Sabina Park, Jamacia and the Kensington Oval, Barbados to Screen 5 at the Vue Leicester Square, the crowd at the Fire in Babylon premiere was rather more boisterous than that at your average screening. Introducing Stevan Riley’s documentary, programmer Michael Hayden drew a chorus of boos with his admission that he didn’t much like cricket. For most people in attendance, this film about the all-powerful West Indian cricket team of the 1970s and 80s was the must-see film of the festival. “Even if they just show some of the old test match footage, it’ll be great,” whispered one eager fan to my left.

Yet it turned out no knowledge of googlies or LBWs was needed. The story of the Windies’ meteoric rise from “several dots on the map” to unbeatable world champions, pummelling former colonial masters England on the way, is of course the stuff that drama is made of. Cricket, the game once disparaged as “organised loafing”, is seen as warfare, with fast-bowlers as marksmen.

Interviews with key players (Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd) plonk you right in the middle of the psychological battle-ground that is the pitch. The threats they faced (“I’m going to knock your ****ing head off”, in the words of one bowler), and the chants of “kill, kill, kill” emanating from an Australian crowd, are all brought alive. As is the thinking behind the Windies’ combative strategy: Richard’s declaration that when he went on the pitch to bat it was with a swagger, with chewing gum in his mouth and a “you’ll have to knock me out to get me out” attitude, drew a particularly loud cheer. But alongside the outbreaks of laughter and applause in the cinema there were also moments of silence – no more so than when the players recalled the racist taunts they faced from opposing players and the press.

True, Riley amps up the drama too much: how many shots of 90 mph-plus balls unleashed on un-helmeted batsmen do we really need to endure? Nor does this uplifting, triumphant tale have any room for mention of earlier trailblazers like Frank Worrell (the first black man to captain the West Indies after CLR James’ prolonged campaign, who made the later team’s success possible).

But if slow-motion archive footage of Michael ‘Whispering Death’ Holding bowling or Malcolm Marshall playing with a broken hand doesn’t do it for you, spending time with fanatical West Indian cricket obsessives like Bunny Wailer surely will. Wailer, Riley confided after the screening, even wanted to wear his whites for the camera.

Boxing Gym

From a noisy, beer-in-hand evening screening to a subdued Saturday morning, we left international cricket grounds for a lowly neighbourhood boxing gym – Lord’s Gym in Austin, Texas, to be precise. Unlike cricket, with its documentary-unfriendly epic length of matches, boxing (and certainly its stars) have enjoyed a lot of cinema time. But I’ll bet there’s not a film about the sport quite like Frederick Wiseman’s. As ever, the master of meditative observational documentary takes the opposite tack to Riley: no musical interludes or nattering heads, just 91 minutes in the care of gym proprietor Richard Lord.

The first thing that hits you is the soundtrack: the deep breaths, the drumbeat of gloves hitting bags over and over again, and that beep of the countdown clock which bludgeons your ear. Weirdly, though, the boxing itself never feels very violent. We don’t see any actual fights and in only two short scenes is there proper sparring. Instead Wiseman, chronicler of American institutions that he is, prowls this compact, poster-filled warehouse observing people at work: boxers bandaging their hands, practising their footwork and enduring some arduous exercise regimes. Wiseman’s last film La Danse The Paris Opera Ballet was fixated with the human body. Despite concentrating largely on amateurs, Boxing Gym is no exception.

Occasionally in the film we listen to people conversing, about everything from discussions about work to the recent Virginia Tech shootings. But only once do we hear what sounds like macho bravado. Compared to the exclusively white and ego-filled domain of the Paris ballet, Lord’s Gym is another world. All types come here, from chubby street fighters to beefy pros, small girls to a 69-year-old grandma – there’s even a baby in the corner. While this shabby gym run by one man in a suburban backwater clearly lacks the scale and achievements of the Paris Ballet, you definitely get the sense that the institution itself is closer to Wiseman’s heart.

« Jamie Thraves’ Treacle Jr.
and Peter Mullan’s Neds

Week two: Black Swan,
Mysteries of Lisbon,
Dear Doctor – and The Boss

See also

London Film Festival 2010: 30 recommendations (online, October 2010)

La Danse The Paris Opera Ballet reviewed by Kate Stables (May 2010)

Reflections in a golden eye: Nicolas Rapold hails Fred Wiseman’s respect for civic institutions and his artistry (September 2008)

Tyson reviewed by Mark Fisher (April 2009)

Take it like a girl: B Ruby Rich heralds Girlfight and the new genre of the women's boxing movie (February 2001)

Play It to the Bone reviewed by Geoffrey Macnab (October 2000)

The Hurricane reviewed by Kate Stables (April 2000)

Last Updated: 03 Nov 2010