In American cinema, boxing has long been the domain of underdogs. From Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront, to Rocky Balboa in Rocky, all the way up to Adonis Johnson in Creed, boxers are traditionally presented as hardscrabble totems of the spirit of the urban working class. In each of these films, breaking free from the city itself is as much of an obstacle to our hero as any prize fighter they face off against in the ring. It’s a compelling narrative archetype that audiences still flock to today despite the fact that the sport reached its popular peak almost a century ago. Boxing, in short, still has undeniable mystique. Today’s Staff Pick Premiere, is a resonant and worthy entry to the canon of boxing films with one important distinction: it’s real.
Directed by Jake Oleson, ‘Ivry’ is an impressionistic portrait of Ivry Hall, an amateur boxer from the South Side of Chicago--an area that has become synonymous with the sort of violent crime that plagues many American cities today. Oleson first met Hall while shooting a series of documentary shorts for the non-profit, Crushers Club, where Hall was training. Four years later, on a trip to Chicago, Oleson went back to visit. “I was shocked to find that a lot of the kids I met were no longer involved in the gym. Only a few remained, one of them being Ivry… A lot of kids had either been killed, incarcerated or fell back into the gangs,” recounts Oleson. “I wanted to know why [Ivry] had chosen a different path than all the other kids that had left the gym.”
Throwing caution to the wind, Oleson and his team set out to document Hall’s story on 16mm film--a decision that might give pause (or a cold sweat) to any documentarian who is used to rolling endless footage onto memory cards. As Oleson puts it, shooting on film was “freeing in a way and... helped me focus my ideas and stay sharp while shooting on the fly.” The result is a beautifully choreographed montage of scenes from Hall’s day-to-day life in and outside the gym, culminating in an electrifying fight at the Chicago Golden Gloves tournament. The world that Hall inhabits is gritty, but not without hints of beauty and grace, which is perfectly reflected in Oleson’s grainy, handheld visual approach.
The heart of the film, though, is a voiceover from Hall in which he recounts his transformation from criminal to boxer--a period during which he lost both of his parents. The monologue, which Hall delivers to one of his students at the gym, chronicles his realization that as an orphan he would have to rely on himself to succeed in life. In this way, boxing has served as both the perfect metaphor and vehicle for Hall’s struggle to survive. His remarkable candor and introspectiveness are a hopeful reminder that we are not defined by our past and even an underdog in the bleakest setting can fight his way out.
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