HotDocs 2011: FIGHTVILLE Review

It was a Mixed Martial Arts weekend here in Toronto as the UFC comes to down as a huge live event, but also in the form of a documentary film as one of the opening nights Galas at this years HotDocs.  Fightville chronicles two fighters as they grind out bloody local-league fights and train at the gym (in a non-descript strip mall located by the Piggly Wiggley,) both as a way of working out their own personal issues and living the dream of a professional fighter.   A short ways into Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's (Gunner Palace, How to Fold a Flag) MMA documentary, you may find yourself reeling from the plethora of pontification on the sport by way of trainer/UFC-competitor Tim Credeur.  As he attempts to sculpt two troubled young men into fighters, you get acclimatized to the mythic manner of speaking (the filmmakers are guilty of getting into that game, throwing up title cards quotes from such a diverse collection of individuals - Walt Whitman, Friederich Nietzsche, Bruce Lee, and most telling, P.T. Barnum.)  One of the two young men makes his walk to the ring dressed as Alex, in full Droog attire, from Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.  It's unclear, exactly how that removes the social stigma that clings to the the sport in some circles, and I'm not sure if it is an act of total misguidedness or one of ironic self-awareness.  All of this spectacle and hubris melts away somewhere near the halfway mark, when you start to see these guys as passionate, struggling, and sacrificing hopefuls for a sliver of the american dream.

Fightville is fortunate to have found Dustin Poirier, whose meteoric rise into the UFC is captured right from the very beginning.  As a boy he was in and out of institutions (you can read the worry lines on his mothers face) before finding Tim and the Gladiators Academy Gym which have provided a very disciplined outlet for his troubles.  Poirier is very open, honest on camera; a conversation about craving ice-cream sandwiches while trying to trim down for a weigh-in is disarmingly charming.    In the ring or during one of many training montages, he is a different story:  Intense, intimidating and frankly kinda scary.  Poor Albert Stainback, the above mentioned young Droog, struggles a bit more with balancing life and combat.  Between them, You get the contrasting picture of what it takes it is to keep focused - there is precious little money to be made outside a few fighters at the top, and real life has a way of intruding on training.

This being a sports movie made in the last 15 years, the business aspects creep into what is otherwise a documentary narrative along the lines of Rocky.  Gil Guillery (a former fighter) who, in life after fighting runs the USA-MMA, and provides the venues for Dustin and Albert and others to fight, his wife helps build the Octagon stage in rodeo grounds, his very young children hand out flyers at the county fair.  More than anyone, Guillery shows how razor thin the financial line is at this level of the sport.  You are doing it out of passion, not for profit.  This comes back to Tim's pontification, it's art when two perfectly matched fighters stare-down in the octagon, not commerce.  

The camera gets right to the edge of the cage and captures the grappling and face-pummeling in a way that regular MMA enthusiasts cannot see the sport.   One could hope for higher production value across Fightville, but the immediate visceral capturing of the matches has its own rewards.  If you cheer when Dustin forces an opponent into submission (or unconsciousness) you'll find yourself cheering.  Us humans are a bloody, primal lot, the spectacle of a good fight is hard to pass up.  
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